THE INSPIRING ARIANA SHAHBAZI
For a long time I've followed Ariana Shahbazi's Instagram, finding motivation in her impressive devotion to fitness and a healthy whole foods diet. The clips she posts of her Tracy Anderson Method workouts capture inspiring strength, dedication and gracefulness. A picture of health, it's hard to imagine she's faced chronic digestion issues and years of troubling symptoms. We chatted via email, and she was kind enough to share her story and journey to health.
NATALIE WESTBROOK: Can you tell us about your background, where you’re from and your current city?
AS: I am half-Belgian, half-Iranian, spent most of my life in Canada and my husband is French, so I have a pretty international background. We lived in France for many years, where we worked and had our two wonderful boys. To this day, the French Riviera is one of my favorite places in the world. In 2011, my husband was sent to Dubai for work and we have been here since. Currently, I work in marketing for a software company and my passions are food (nutrition, preparing, cooking and eating it!) and fitness. I also love hanging around at the beach and reading.
NW: You’re a self proclaimed 'fitness nutrition geek’ with an incredibly inspiring and popular Instagram page filled with videos of yourself working out in your garden, and pics of your healthy homemade meals. Have you always had a healthy lifestyle?
AS: No, not always. As a kid, I ate well because my parents paid attention to the food they put on the table. However, during my teenage years, I started eating out more and consumed a lot more junk food and sugar, I would skip meals sometimes, but then would eat a box of cookies or a few bowls of ice cream. I was not very active either, in fact I was one of those kids who just was not that great in sports. Luckily, my big brother would sometimes take me out swimming or running and he taught me how to get out of my comfort zone in order to improve and that sowed a seed that would continue to grow for many years to come.
Later, in my twenties, after many years trying to diet and failing miserably, I started to just change the way I ate and incorporated fitness more regularly into my life. Food-wise, I started incorporating more vegetables, I stopped snacking and became more mindful of what I put into my mouth. I think that is when my relationship with food started changing - it went from emotional eating to eating because I was hungry and liked it.
NW: What is your diet, and how did you discover what works best for you?
AS: This is a big topic for me. First, I need to say that there is no one size fits all dietary regimen. Everyone has a unique body chemistry that changes over time so what can work for one person does not necessarily work for everyone. Also, what works for someone in their 30s might not in their 40s or 50s.
My digestion started becoming an issue after I had my first child— I had gotten a terrible stomach bug that lasted weeks and after that, my digestive system never got back to normal. I had a "healthy" diet but for some reason, was often bloated and could not figure out what the problem was. This lasted for years. Finally, last year I went to see a nutritionist who got me tested for everything— from parasites, to intolerances to analyzing the bacteria in my gut. The verdict was that I had a form of candida and had fructose malabsorption, which means I cannot digest fructose and it's family (fructans, galactans, etc) properly. So I was put on what is called the low FODMAP diet and she asked me to completely eliminate sugar. Basically, it is similar to a slightly more complicated paleo diet but does allow for non-wheat grains. It is hard to do at first, but I am used to it and it works for my body chemistry right now.
NW: The International Foundation for Functional Gastrointestinal Disorders explains on their website, aboutIBS.org, that an Australian research team developed the lowFODMAP diet, believing a group of short-chain carbohydrates, named FODMAPS (Fermentable Oligo-saccharides, Di-saccharides, Mono-saccharides and Polyols) are problematic for those with IBS. Their website says "these short-chain carbohydrates are poorly absorbed in the small intestine and rapidly fermented by bacteria in the gut. The production of gas by these bacteria is a major contributor to symptoms.” Did you find the diet alleviated your symptoms completely?
AS: The low FODMAP diet really helped me, but my digestion still wasn't 100% so I began investigating different things. I got my DNA tested and found out that my body has a tendency to get inflammation pretty easily for various reasons. So the doctor recommended I up my antioxidant intake and also take a good glutathione supplement. This was like another key to my digestive health and I can definitely tell it has improved my overall well being. Lastly, I started doing a lot of research on the enteric system (the nervous system that controls digestion, ie. our second brain) and learned about the importance of breathing. This was also life-changing for me. Not only for my stomach issues but also to calm myself down in stressful situations.
NW: What’s your favorite post-workout snack?
AS: I usually workout first thing in the morning so the first thing I eat after my workout is breakfast. My favorite breakfast these days is thick yogurt with some berries and cinnamon. Sometimes I add nuts or seeds to it. I also love buckwheat bread, which I have toasted, with a slab of grass fed butter.
NW: You’re an avid practitioner of the Tracy Anderson Method, an intense workout that combines muscular structure (strength training) performed on a mat and dance cardio. You’re also currently working towards a diploma in neuropilates, which will be completed in February. Can you talk about your fitness journey, how your research and practice has developed?
AS: From my early twenties to my early thirties I was into doing anything that was cardio: long distance running, biking, spinning, swimming, HIIT, you name it. I just felt like it was what burned the most calories and I enjoyed doing them. However, about 6 years ago, I got injured running at one point and the doctor told me to take it easy for a while. I started researching online, looking for pilates-type workouts when I stumbled upon Tracy Anderson. I started doing the method as prescribed: 6x a week, not mixing it with any other type of workout. It totally reshaped my body. My back, abs, arms are so much stronger, my legs are slimmer and my butt is firmer. No amount of spinning or running ever did that to me. These were the first "results" I saw. Over the years though, I have found that I am a lot more balanced, flexible, agile and nimble than I have ever been. When I took my first neuropilates class, we learned a lot about how the nervous system is connected to movement and did loads of testing on ourselves. I realized that my coordination, balance and proprioception in general are way better than they would have been before my Tracy Anderson days. It has even changed little things, like for example, I am a lot better at aiming and throwing things than before. She just incorporates more things in her method than meets the eye, I could go on about it for hours, as I am sure a lot of other "TAMmers" can! Her method does not just give you a bikini body, it is great for your brain.
NW: As a spouse and mother of two young children, how do you find time for your workouts?
AS: I just make it a priority. For many years I did it late at night but that meant eating dinner at 9 or 10pm! Now, I do it first thing in the morning mostly. It is not easy, but a lot of women who have a lot more on their plate than I find the time to work out, so it is possible. In fact most people I know who work out everyday are really busy people. It is just a question of really wanting to get it in, even if it is just 20 minutes.
NW: You’re such an inspiration to many followers on social media. Where you do look for your own inspiration, and how do you stay motivated?
AS: Well I am pretty intrinsically motivated when it comes to exercise, but I do think that Instagram is a great place for inspiration. Just within the Tracy Anderson community I have met so many wonderful people who are doing amazing things. I definitely aspire to many of them. The ones I admire the most are the older ladies who are in their 50s or 60s and in great shape, I just hope I can be like them when I grow up!
NW: What advice would you give to someone struggling with choosing a healthy lifestyle?
AS: Take it step by step. Don't go drastic unless you have to. Gradually incorporate better foods into your diet and lower the amount of processed foods you eat. Same with fitness, do it gradually, but keep at it, don't give up.
What can help is to follow people who inspire you, watch interviews, read articles, get informed, try new recipes, hang out with healthy folks: immerse yourself in a healthy world. It will influence your decisions for sure and help you take steps towards a better lifestyle.
NW: Do you have a favorite recipe you could share?
AS: When I make this salad for a crowd, it’s a hit every time. The combination of fresh herbs with the buttery taste of avocado and tangy feta is just out of this world. Chopping the herbs is the most time-consuming part of this recipe, the rest is done in a snap. I prefer to chop by hand to avoid the leaves getting dark – this is especially true if you are using mint.
Living in the Middle East, I am lucky to have access to a myriad of fresh, fragrant herbs but if you don’t have all of these, it really doesn’t matter, the important ones are the cilantro and parsley – the rest you can substitute with whatever you’ve got on hand.
Fresh Herb, Avocado and Feta Salad
1 cup of dry quinoa
A bunch of chopped parsley
A bunch of chopped coriander
A small bunch of za'atar (Lebanese wild thyme), fresh mint or dill
2-3 tbsp minced chives/basil/oregano
1/2 cup pomegranate
1 avocado, in cubes
1/2 cup diced cucumber
5 radishes, sliced
3/4 cup crumbled feta
1/2 cup good quality extra virgin olive oil
Juice of 1-2 lemons
1 tsp cumin
Salt (I use pink Himalayan)
Freshly ground pepper
Cook quinoa according to the package instructions. Let cool.
Mix all the herbs in a large bowl
Add the cooled quinoa
Mix in the pomegranate, avocado, cucumbers, radishes, feta and capers
In a small bowl, mix the lemon juice, oil, cumin, salt and pepper
Pour dressing over the salad and mix thoroughly