How a Diet of Pure Junk Food Helped Me Last 3 Seasons on 'Survivor'
You need to have a few screws loose to go on Survivor. No sane person could possibly want to spend more than a month dodging swarms of bugs, sleeping in the jungle during tropical storms, taking zero showers, living a toilet paper-free life, and brushing their teeth with nothing more than splinters of bamboo, right? So when I told friends and family that I'd be competing on the show for the third time in five years, their response was completely reasonable: "What in the name of Jeff Probst's dimples is the matter with you?"
While there are exactly one-million pre-tax reasons (those would all be dollars) to put yourself through that kind of misery, Survivor can and will kick your ass. If the mosquitoes and the hygiene and the sleep deprivation don't get to you (and they do), the starvation eventually will. Your diet is the hardest part -- and not just while you're on the island. I was a contestant on consecutive seasons in 2012, followed by an obnoxiously brief stint a few months back, and my body has never been the same.
The muscle mass I lost after nearly 80 days of food deprivation clearly has no intention of ever returning, and to this day I'm stuck with backward eating habits and a too-sensitive digestive system. (And please, for the love of all that is holy, if I ever come to your house for dinner, do not ever serve me coconut.) Yet most people don't believe that what happens on Survivor is real, and you can't really blame them.
For the love of all that is holy, do not ever serve me coconut.
With the amount of deception in reality TV today, half-savvy fans believe that what they see on the show only happens during daylight hours and is carefully controlled by producers behind the scenes. They assume you've been eating catered meals once the cameras turn off, and that come nightfall you're tucked away in a cozy hotel bed. But I've suffered through torrential downpours (we had 17 straight days of rain in Philippines), lost an obscene amount of body weight (I dropped 35 pounds over my first two seasons), and been irreparably scarred by bug bites (my right calf still looks like someone attacked me with a cheese grater).
So make no mistake: Survivor is real. And one of the most brutal aspects is the lack of food -- this is not a game for the "hangry." If you manage to convince a group of maladjusted strangers not to write your name down long enough, you're going to spend over a month eating just a few handfuls of rice each day. I once heard it works out to about 400 calories of food daily, but even if that's an exaggeration, you'd better believe that you will be legitimately, literally starving. But just like you can prepare for the challenge and the strategy aspects of the show, you can (and should) be prepping for the upcoming assault on your digestive system.
Get fat or get fit?
When you land on the beach for your first day of the game, you'll be alarmed to discover that many contestants haven't prepped to be on the show. Most of your fellow castaways have done little more than watch a few previous episodes, and only did that so they could ogle scantily-clad contestants from yesteryear.
Making a fire? "There'll be a person to do that." Understanding modern strategy? "'Alliance' is a word a heard once." Practicing knots? "I do that every day with my shoes!"
Those people won't last long. Those who do are the ones who have trained their bodies. There are several schools of thought when it comes to preparing for the show.
The most obvious route is to make like a bear in winter and pack on the fat stores. If you're not going to be fed for the next five-plus weeks, why not binge on Bagel Bites and Cookie Crisp so that you've got reserves of energy for the show?
You can understand why this is appealing: it’s the perfect excuse to give to your significant other for eating like Eric Cartman pre-show. “Do you want me to win the million? For us? Then let me microwave my fourth Hot Pocket!” And it’s surface-level logical.
Jonathan Penner (a three-time player, famous for mutinying in Cook Islands and perpetually sounding like Alan Alda) was all about that fat life before his third season. I'm not just saying that because he was, in fact, fat, but because he talked about it on the beach. He wasn't going to eat during the game, so he ate everything he could get his hands on in the month leading up to it.
The vain amongst you have already spotted a fatal flaw in that first prepping plan. You're about to have dozens of HD cameras recording you in your underwear for a month, and wearing an inner tube of blubber around your waist on national television isn't how one makes their exes jealous. So many contestants go the opposite direction, spending several months at their local CrossFit garage getting cut.
My fellow contestant on Philippines, Carter Williams, went this route. Fans of the show can be excused for not remembering who he is -- the statisticians can check my math, but I don't imagine anyone’s ever played so long and said so little. It’s not because he's boring. Carter is hilarious and charming in real life, and can recite the entire script to Point Break by heart. But his superstar athlete body was used to running on 4,000 calories/day, and once that intake was cut by 90%, he simply shut down. See also: Garrett Adelstein from Brawn vs. Brains vs. Beauty. He is an incredibly smart guy, and you could fry a waffle on his abs, but take away the nutrition he’s used to, and you get a meltdown of epic proportions in the first week.
So if you shouldn't get fat and you shouldn't get super fit, then what’s the answer?
Option three? Fasting.
For my money, the solution is fasting. It's the best way to get your system ready for the idea of not eating a first-world diet. I started cutting calories as soon as I could, which meant I gave up the construct of three square meals a day about 30 days before game time. For me, this meant eating just two small meals every 24 hours.
On top of that, I’d do all my workouts first thing in the morning. If you’re worried about your midsection (me) and still want to be in peak physical form come day one (also me), it’s a win-win. Experts say the body burns more fat when doing cardio without fuel in the system, and you’re training yourself to perform while on empty. Pretty and prepared.
But here’s the twist -- if you called a nutritionist and asked what foods you should be putting in your system before Survivor... well, they’d probably call you an idiot and recommend you not go on the show. But once you insisted, they’d list a lot of high-fiber super-healthy crap that costs the GDP of a small nation at Whole Foods. So I broke with orthodoxy and I ate like garbage.
My meals were crafted from gastronomic delights like DiGiorno and éclairs and sour gummy worms and Taco Bell and whiskey. I kept the calories low and exercised hard, yes, but the quality of stuff going in was about as nutritious as deep-fried butter tastefully garnished with lard.
I didn’t stop going to McDonalds; I’d just order a six-piece McNuggets without fries. A pint of Karamel Sutra was still in the freezer, but now it lasted a month instead of 15 minutes. I’m sure there’s a simple, valid argument for cutting out caffeine and liquor before the game, but c’mon -- who wants to live in a world without them?
My body thought 39 days of rice was a vacation.
I like to joke that I was so unhealthy before the show, that my body became turbocharged on the all-natural diet. I truly believe this; I’ve treated my system like such crap for so long, it thought 39 days of rice was a vacation.
Don't trust that combining fast food and fasting is the way? That's fine. But believe me when I say one of the most beloved winners from recent years, a certain bespectacled ginger who insists on attending every finale, eats nothing but fast food every day. Usually just once, around lunchtime, in proportions that would concern any cardiologist. And he has a million dollars in the bank.