The actress known for her wide smile and thin frame
weighs in on how to love your body.
By Allan Richter
Cameron Diaz has radiated a blend of beauty and comic sensibility from her first moments onscreen in her feature film debut, the 1994 comedy “The Mask,” to “There’s Something About Mary,” the 1998 modern classic that cemented her stardom, and right through to her latest film, “The Other Woman.” Her wide smile and the laugh lines around it are as much a trademark of the 41-year-old actress as her slender, leggy frame.
Diaz has taken on more serious roles, too, showing off her dramatic acting chops in “Gangs of New York,” Martin Scorcese’s 2002 ode to 19th century Manhattan, and in the surreal 2001 drama “Vanilla Sky” with Tom Cruise. She’s sounding a more serious tone again, this time on the written page instead of film, in The Body Book: The Law of Hunger, the Science of Strength, and Other Ways to Love Your Amazing Body (Harper Wave).
Diaz began earning the stripes to author a self-help health book on the set of “Charlie’s Angels,” the 2000 movie version of the TV series. The film’s producers had hired a martial arts master, Chang-yan Yuen, to run Diaz and co-star Drew Barrymore through rigorous training for their physically demanding roles. It was tough going. The martial arts expert’s first admonition to the actresses: “Your new best friend is pain.”
“Most of my life I was not aware of my nutrition, I was not aware of my fitness,” Diaz tells a capacity crowd at the Book Revue in Huntington, New York, a stop on her promotional tour for the best-selling The Body Book. “When I did ‘Charlie’s Angels’ I was forced into my body in a way that was very extreme. We started doing training, eight hours a day, seven days a week, for three months. We were forced literally to form a relationship with our bodies, and I didn’t have one before that.”
Well, she had a relationship with her body, but not a great one. Diaz was 26 when she took on “Charlie’s Angels” and had just quit smoking. She was thin since childhood and accustomed to overeating without gaining weight. “I was a major junk food eater. If you are what you eat, which we are, I was a bean burrito with extra cheese and extra sauce, and a large Coke. I had taco sauce running through my veins. So I knew how it felt to be on the other side. I knew what it felt like to only consume that kind of food. I had really bad skin. I mean I had cystic acne for most of my 20s, really bad.”
In unleashing flying kicks and performing other physical feats on “Charlie’s Angels,” Diaz was astonished to learn what her body could endure. She felt “powerful and capable. I had this strength and ability.” She decided she would never return to her unhealthy ways, and she maintained the discipline to exercise and eat right ever since. “I was going to hold onto that strength on some level and I was never going back to where I was,” Diaz says. “I’ve stayed in that place pretty much consistently and never completely let it go.”
Rooted in Science
The shapely pose that graces the cover of her book shows that Diaz is armed with the credentials for authoring a book about caring for your body. But the soft smile and hint of mischief in her ocean-blue eyes belie the seriousness of the book’s content—and it is serious, in a scientific sense.
Rather than showing photo after photo of Diaz toning up or tackling a series of yoga asanas, The Body Book features a few well-placed shots of the actress, as well as tables and illustrations that could easily find their place in a medical textbook: cellular structure, a cutaway of the lungs, the skeletal and muscular systems.
“I’m a science nerd,” Diaz tells her book tour audience. “I love knowing things. I love figuring things out and putting them together.” Wearing her blonde hair in a long ponytail, Diaz sports black stiletto boots, form-fitting jeans and a black sweater.
Diaz treads on some familiar territory in her book, like cholesterol and cravings, but also tackles cutting-edge science and health concepts, such as the positive role of bacteria, probiotics and the microbiome. Diaz calls the latter “the essence of our health.” The microbiome is the collection of bacteria, viruses and other microbes that live in the body.
“Bacteria in your gut, in your digestive tract, your microbiome, is responsible for breaking down all of your nutrients, digesting your food, extracting your nutrients, and allowing them to be absorbed through your small intestine,” Diaz says. “It also helps to keep out any viruses or any bacteria that isn’t good for your body. If you have a healthy microbiome, then it can recognize whether something belongs in your body or not.”
Because people first encounter the microbiome from their mothers during childbirth, Diaz points to research that has found that babies delivered via cesarean section are more prone to obesity, infection and lactose intolerance. And she rails against the overuse of antibiotics, which, she says, kill bad and good bacteria. To reverse the damage, however, she notes that we can promote the balance of good bacteria by consuming probiotics.
But, as Diaz cautions in The Body Book, consumers should carefully check labels. Lactobacillus delbreckii bulgaricus and Streptococcus thermophilus in yogurt, for example, can be broken down by your stomach’s high acid content and by bile, cancelling out any positive effect. Instead, Diaz says, look for Lactobacillus acidophilus and Bifidobacterium, which can weather the tough stomach conditions.
Diaz herself chooses a rice-based probiotic drink, giving her 50 billion active L. acidophilus and L. casei bacteria. “When I take my probiotics regularly, I feel good,” she writes, “and I feel like I am helping my body help itself.”
Equation for Health
Diaz’s tour for The Body Book is part promotion, part pep rally, as the actress encourages her audience with practical advice and occasional rallying cries of “you can do it!” She says people can change their approach to wellness by considering the roughly 10 important health-related choices they may encounter each day.
“When you take health as an equation, and you think about that you have 10 choices, 10 opportunities to make a good choice or a bad choice, as long as the equation is more good than bad, you’re ahead of the game, you’re doing better,” she says. “Look at your 10 choices in a day, and try to balance at least five good with five bad. Slowly move it up—six good ones, four bad ones; seven good ones, three bad ones. Wherever you can show in the equation that half or more are good, you’re golden. That’s the formula for the rest of your life.
“You don’t have to deprive yourself to be happy,” Diaz adds. “You don’t have to deprive yourself to have the body that you’re actually meant to have. Nutrients are nourishment. You actually have to eat an abundance of food to get good nourishment. Diets tell you what you can’t have; nourishment tells you what you can have, how abundant your life can be full of nutrients. I’m an eater. I like to eat.”
She urges people to reframe their thinking about wellness, saying 90% of achieving good health,including physical activity, is related to nutrition.
“You don’t have to go to the gym every day for an hour, that’s not what this is about,” she says. “I’m not advocating for you to live that lifestyle. I’m advocating for you to find a place and a way to be able to make movement a part of your day consistently. Movement is as big a part of getting the nutrients into your cells as eating is. We don’t need exercise just to keep the weight off. We need exercise to utilize the energy and nutrition that we’re consuming.”
Keeping your metabolic rate up and your body “in line” with its fuel usage, and with the right amount and kind of fuel, Diaz says, means you’re burning that fuel evenly. “What happens is that you become efficient,” she says. “Your body is constantly utilizing the energy that you give it.”
That efficiency enables you to better anticipate your body’s fuel needs. Diaz, having learned to read her body’s cues, knows to eat a little protein in the form of a handful of nuts, rather than a carbohydrate, before she goes to bed so she does not wake up hungry in the middle of the night.
To make those cues work for you, Diaz endorses a kind of conscious eating, an understanding that hunger comes roughly every three hours. “If you anticipate that, you can be ready for that hunger,” she says. “You can have some nuts, some fruit, a nut bar, an apple, something that you can take hold of that you know will carry you to the next place where you know that you’re going to get the food that you need.”
The extra awareness helps you forestall false hunger cues that surround us daily. “Food is abundant. It’s around us all the time,” she says. “We smell it in the air when we walk around a pizzeria, and we say, ‘I’m hungry.’ We’re not hungry unless we’re actually hungry. If you don’t pay attention to the last time you ate, you won’t know if your hunger is really there or if you’re just being cued by the outside stimuli. If you understand these things, then when you’re walking down the street and you smell the pizza, or you hear that cheeseburger commercial on the radio, you know, ‘I already ate. I can actually hold off another hour until I get to my real meal.’”
Reasons to Move
Diaz sets the tone for the rest of her day by working out first thing in the morning—taking 20 minutes to run up and down her block or putting on headphones and sneakers to dance around her living room—and coupling that activity with a healthy breakfast. “Indoors or outside,” she writes in The Body Book, “even fifteen minutes of movement gives me a jolt of energy and reminds me how good it feels to move.”
She bemoans how technological advances over the decades—beginning with what she terms “The Lazy Bones,” the first TV remote control, in the 1950s to robotic vacuums half a century later—have made us rely less on ourselves and more on machines, meaning less movement for our bodies.
The reference to that long arc of time makes sense for the actress’ aims. Diaz says she dove into educating others about health not to offer a quick fix, but to help guide people into a lifetime of wellness and to help them shape their own positive self-image.
“We don’t know what nutrition means. We don’t know why we need physical activity. We are always thinking about it to achieve some other goal, to look like somebody else,” she says. “We’re comparing ourselves constantly to other people as a benchmark to where we’re meant to be. And I felt that comparison is really just a waste of energy and time.
“I read a quote once that said, ‘Comparison is a brutal assault upon oneself.’ It really is. It’s this energy that we focus negatively towards ourselves, when we’re comparing ourselves to other people, saying, ‘I’m not good enough because I don’t have that.’ I wanted women to understand and to know that the body that they have is an amazing miracle, and that they don’t know what they’re actually capable of, what they actually look like, or what their body is if they don’t understand how it works.”