Trainer Tarrah Lee on clean eating and being up for Women's Health's Next Fitness Star

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Overweight for most of her life, local trainer Tarrah Lee received a heartbreaking wake-up call when her father passed away from a heart attack. At 25, Lee herself was looking down at a lifetime of unhealthy eating, and the life event moved her to make a serious change. Now a personal trainer and certified nutritionist, Lee works out of a fitness studio in Lone Tree training others, while running Denver Nutritionista, a blog and weekly radio show focused on a "clean eating" diet.

At a client's urging, Lee was among thousands who applied for the title of Women's Health's Next Fitness Star. The professional fitness competitor is now one of five finalists up for the title -- which includes a magazine cover story on her journey. With voting opening today, Lee spoke with Westword about weight loss, eating food as fuel and why she gets up every morning to help others get fit and happy, too.

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You've lost 92 pounds and are a personal trainer and nutritionist. How did you get to be where you are today?

I grew up between Missouri and Texas -- I was raised by a football player dad and a mom who was a true Texan. I ate a lot of chicken fried steak. (Laughs.) I spent most of my life very overweight -- when I was in second grade, I was already in the 130s (weight-wise.) I was 200 pounds by the time I was in the ninth grade. It was from eating, eating, eating. I definitely have my dad's appetite -- I watched him just wolf down food.

The funny thing is, we didn't eat fast food, but we ate heavy foods -- mashed potatoes, fried foods, stuff like that. When I was 25, my dad passed away from a heart attack. He was literally drinking 64 ounce Dr. Peppers everyday. It was a lifetime of unhealthy living. It was extremely difficult on me, so I knew at that point that I had to do something. I wasn't going to spend my life this way and I knew that wasn't what my dad would want for me.

My first step was to start working out. Of course, I thought, I can just work out and work off all of this bad food that I eat. That definitely didn't work. I spent a good year trying without any results -- because I wasn't really doing anything right. Then one day I decided, that's it. I had gotten up to 216 pounds, and I had never been that heavy in my entire life. My cholesterol was high, my triglycerides were high -- my doctor told me I was a walking twenty-five year old example of bad health.

I knew that I had to be done with this -- so I got a trainer and started working out a few times a week. Unfortunately, he knew nothing about food. He had me eating protein bars all day long. I was eating, like, eight protein bars a day -- which is all sugar.

I started researching and reading and realizing, you know what? I can start eating some of the Southern favorites that my mom makes, but I can make them healthy. I love to cook, so I started experimenting in the kitchen -- and my blog Denver Nutritionista, was born. I put all of my recipes and cooking tips and fitness tips on there. My passion grew from there.

The more weight I lost the more that I started realizing I could eat cleaner and better, but still eat all of the things that I loved. I went and got my nutrition certification and my personal training certification and I became a nutritionist and trainer myself, so I could help other people.

It's sometimes hard when we look at our backgrounds -- especially when you know your parents weren't feeding you that stuff because they knew it was bad.

The funny thing is, I can look back and think oh my god, how did they feed me that and not know? But that was what I was raised on, that's what my parents were raised on. We just didn't think about it -- the idea that food was literally making us unhealthy. Now, my mom calls me "the food Nazi," because I'm (saying) mom, you know what is in that, right? You know what that is doing to your body. There is so much information out there now; we just have to open our eyes.

There is so much that we don't know unless we look at the finer details -- protein bars are marketed as "healthy," but the sugar content negates any nutritional value.

It's funny -- I love to take pictures of the backs of foods and post them on Instagram and ask people what they think it is. The other day, I posted a Clif Bar, and there are twenty-two grams of sugar in this tiny bar. I'm like, y'all, this is a candy bar. (Laughs.) It is unreal how much sugar is in things. I always tell people, read labels. You are an advocate of "clean eating" -- can you explain what that is, exactly?

I love that you asked that -- I have a radio show called Denver Nutritionista on Friday mornings at 9 a.m. on milehighradio.com, and the who premise of that is eating clean and eating often. My favorite acronym is C.O.C.A -- Clean, Often, Consistent, Active. I tell people, you have to eat clean, you have to eat often to keep your metabolism going, you have to be consistent because going back and forth slows your metabolism down and you have to stay active to burn the calories.

Clean eating, essentially, is just staying away from processed foods. Processed foods are full of sugars, salts, fats and things that food companies have hidden in the food to make us not satiated, so that we'll buy more. Eating clean is buying everything in its purest form and then cooking it at home. Eating lean proteins like chicken, ground turkey and beef and even lean steaks like tenderloin filets and port tenderloin. Buying whole fresh veggies and whole grains like oats, brown rice, sweet potatoes, red potatoes and quinoa are essential. Even good fats like olive oil and avocados and utilizing them and finding creative ways to cook them.

The biggest problem I hear is things like, chicken and broccoli? That's boring. But I never eat chicken and broccoli -- I make delicious "clean" burrito bowls from brown rice, ground beef, fresh avocado, fresh pico de gallo that I make at home and a little bit of shredded lettuce and black beans. You end up with a meal you could essentially get at Chipotle or QDoba but you've made it at home. You've cut the calories by a third, you have no sodium or sugars or other additives, and it's delicious. It is all about combining these foods in creative ways that taste good.

Basically, don't buy things in boxes, don't buy things that are processed, don't buy things that are pre-marinated. Buy food in its pure form.

It seems like your taste buds almost get burnt out from eating overloads of salt and sugar. If you're able to sort of reset, the natural flavors of foods are there and you can taste them again.

I'm super sensitive -- once you cut it out, you can't put it back in. Your body gets so oversensitive, which it actually should be, because everything is over-salted. My husband and I still have our indulgences and we eat a treat meal once a week. But I always joke that if I have something salty, then I have a "salt baby" -- it immediately bloats me up, I feel like crap. I react.

What is it like being active in the competitive arena of fitness?

I just started about a year ago -- it's so much fun. I will be competing next weekend in Chicago for my very first pro-qualifier, which is a huge deal. The division I compete in is called National Physique Committee. There are various classes -- there's bikini fitness, figure fitness, bodybuilding, and I'm in bikini fitness. It's a very muscular look but still very soft and feminine, which I really like. It's the look of fitness models in magazines.

When I was kid -- I'd be looking at women's magazines and think, I will never look like that, but I wish I could. I had always dreamed of it. It's funny, because, after I went from 216 to 150, I felt great. That's a huge feat in itself. I thought, wow, I did this awesome thing, but you know what? I've spent my whole life overweight. I've spent my whole life never believing that I could do anything, and I want to prove to myself and to other women that anything is possible.

This girl, who used to cry when she put on a bikini, is going to be on stage in a bikini and judged for her muscular tonality. I love it. It is so much fun. I cannot even begin to tell you how many people I talk to at shows who are inspired -- they ask if I've had surgery. They can't believe I can look like this after losing 92 pounds. But it is a lot of hard work -- clean eating and exercise. Period. It is so neat to be able to show women that you don't have to be a fitness competitor, but you can do anything that you want to.

Can you talk a little about what you do as a personal trainer and nutritionist?

I make meal plans for clients and I train them at home and at a gym. My husband and I work out of Health Styles Fitness, an equipment vendor in Lone Tree. They met us when we were trainers at 24Hour Fitness and asked us if we would be interested in coming on board and training out of their studio. We are able to bring our own clientele as well as their clientele. It's a private studio with state-of-the-art equipment. I work with many overweight people who are intimidated by the gym, so they love coming there because it's private.

The gym is often a scary place to be -- it's like everyone is looking at you. All the time.

It's uncomfortable. I work out at our studio four days a week -- I go into the gym early before my six a.m. clients because sometimes, even now being a fit person, I don't want to be stared at the whole time. It's like, come on.

What you do you feel like winning the Women's Health Next Fitness Star would do for you, professionally?

It is a dream come true. One of my clients actually talked me into a submitting a video for this. She came into her session one day with the magazine and was like, look, you have to do this. I still have that fat girl mentality in my head sometimes -- like, why would anyone want me to be the Next Fitness Star? There's no way I would get that. But she convinced me.

I grabbed my phone, filmed a video, went home and edited it and sent it in with my bio and pictures and got a call in February. I work with people on a one-on-one basis and I love that and I don't think I would ever be able to give it up. It is one of the most rewarding things --to physically see someone transform and them to become emotional and to tell you that it is because of you. Which it's not --- they put in the work. But it is an incredible feeling to help people change their lives.

If I could do that for the masses -- this opportunity for me would be my dream.

Voting for Tarrah Lee to be Women's Health's Next Fitness Star begins today, and can be done by visiting the competition's website. To follow Lee's work, visit her blog, Denver Nutritionista.

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