Southerner Bob Harper, of The Biggest Loser fame, sat down with Southern Living to discuss what it was like growing up on a Tennessee farm, tips for keeping New Year’s resolutions, and what it takes to make the perfect fried chicken.
Southern Living: Tell us about your roots in Tennessee.
Bob Harper: I grew up on a cattle farm about an hour outside of Nashville in a little place called Adams, Tennessee. There’s a line in a Tennessee Williams play, “I’ve always relied on the kindness of strangers,” and I feel like all of the people that I have met from the South have helped me along the way and made me who I am. Being a Southerner has taught me even more compassion for the contestants I’ve worked with on The Biggest Loser now for 15 seasons. It has given me compassion and the strength to endure—I really owe that to my Southern upbringing.
SL: What kind of chores did you have on the farm?
BH: I had to get up before going to school in the morning and make these huge baby bottles to go feed the calves. I have this visual imagery of me just being a kid with these big milk bottles in my hand walking through the snow to get to the barn to feed the calves. It was really sweet but I learned at an early age that you should never name those calves because you don’t want to get too connected to them. You live on a cattle farm and chances are those calves are going to turn into meat on your dinner table.
SL: How has growing up on a farm effected who you are today?
BH: Living and growing up on a farm has taught me a really good work ethic. If someone tried to get a job with me and I saw that they were a “farmhand,” they would be on the top of the list because I know they would be hard workers. It kept me really physical too. Farm life is not for the weak.
SL: How do you stay active when you’re traveling?
BH: I’m a big CrossFit-er so the one thing I do whenever I travel is look for a gym that has been affiliated with the CrossFit brand. If they’re affiliated with CrossFit, they’re pretty legit. [CrossFit gyms] have a really good sense of community. I can go into any place and feel like I have friends there immediately. And I’m also going to have one of the hardest workouts of my entire life.
SL: A lot of the South, like anywhere else, is really rural. Can you recommend some at-home workouts for people that aren’t around big gyms?
BH: It’s about getting out and being more active, not thinking that a workout means having to go to a gym and get on a treadmill. Especially these rural places like where I grew up, it can mean just walking and enjoying nature or even gardening.
SL: What is your favorite Southern food and do you have any suggestions on making it healthier?
BH: One of my favorite Southern foods is biscuits and gravy, and there is no way you can make it healthier. Homemade buttermilk biscuits and gravy, I mean, I haven’t had it in years but man, I love that. I also love fried chicken—that perfect fried chicken that only a Southern woman knows how to do. You get that good fry that is not greasy… that’s perfect. But what I tell people when it comes to going healthier is you’ve got to be careful of the fried food (go with the baked chicken instead) and have the things that you enjoy in moderation. I would never tell you that you could never have the fried chicken and biscuits and gravy. I want you to have it in moderation and make sure that six days out of the week you’re eating healthy and then have that one day out of the week that you can splurge.
SL: You have a new book coming out in April, Skinny Meals. Tell us about it.
BH: My last two books, The Skinny Rules and Jumpstart to Skinny, are both New York Times #1 best-sellers and it’s about giving people a set of rules that they can live by that are manageable yet nonnegotiable. With my new book, everyone was like “we need more recipes.” The [new] book is just that. It’s a cookbook with a lot of great and healthy recipes for people to eat that are easy to make and affordable.
SL: What is that one bit of advice that you’d give people who want to start with a small change?
BH: I tell people that are on the fence [about changing] to eat whatever it is you want to eat, but cut those portions in half. If they cut them in half they’re going to naturally lose weight because it’s math at that point.
SL: Do you have any advice on making/keeping New Year’s resolutions?
BH: Be really careful with New Year’s resolutions because if you set the bar up so high in the beginning, you have nowhere to go but down. I say it all the time, set one small goal and let it build from there. I’m a big believer in taking baby steps so whatever it is that you’ve decided that you want to do for your resolution, really take a long hard look at yourself in the mirror and say “if you stop doing whatever it is that you’ve resolved to do then who are you really giving up on? You’re giving up on yourself.” The person that you’re looking at in the mirror is the one person you should always protect.
SL: What is your favorite moment from filming The Biggest Loser?
BH: I have to say that one of my favorite contestants of all time was season 11 winner, Olivia Ward. She was from the South too. I always have a real bond with the contestants that are from the South because I gravitate towards Southern people; I think Southern people are just good people.
SL: What is your favorite Southern expression?
BH: One of the best sayings ever is “bless your heart.” I still say it; it’s something that will be with me for the rest of my life. When someone does something so sweet I’m just looking at them like “bless your heart.”