Davina McCall: At 53, I am so much fitter than I was in my 20s
Liz Connor hears how a shock high cholesterol diagnosis played a part in the presenter's mission to transform her health
AT 53, Davina McCall is a fitness powerhouse. The TV presenter and mother-of-three has transformed her physique in recent years, launching her own fitness platform Own Your Goals Davina, as well as sugar-free cookbooks and workout DVDs.
But wellness wasn't always top of her agenda, and early on in her career, McCall admits a poor diet and lack of exercise put her health at risk.
“In my 20s, exercise wasn't as much of a focus for me as it is now. I was quite slim but my body wasn't very toned, which was probably because when I did go to the gym, I would never really break a sweat. You would typically find me on the stepping machine reading a magazine.
“But soon after I had my second daughter Tilly, I got in touch with this amazing [personal trainer] couple, Jackie and Mark, who I found in a local magazine and they completely turned my life around. I went from walking down the red carpet and no one really taking any notice of me, to then walking down the red carpet and everyone screaming my name and wanting photos – and that was because I had really toned up.
“Comparing my fitness now to back in my 20s, I am so much fitter than I was then. At the time, I was quite content with my fitness, but if I was to have done a fitness test at 28, I'm sure I wouldn't have scored as well as I would now, despite being in my 50s.”
During this time, before she became a household name on Big Brother in the noughties, McCall was shocked to discover she had high cholesterol while undergoing a routine health test, putting her at risk of developing heart disease.
“After I met my husband [McCall married Matthew Robertson in 2000; the pair have since divorced], we decided we wanted to try for a baby. One of my biggest fears was whether I would come across any barriers in getting pregnant, and so to put my mind at ease, I booked a general health check with my GP.
“They took some bloods and the test flagged two things: the first was that my thyroid was struggling and the second showed I had high cholesterol.
“I just looked at my GP and asked if it was mistake,” McCall recalls. “At the time, I considered myself to be a moderately healthy 28-year-old and it never even crossed my mind that I would be at risk of something like that, especially as I always associated high cholesterol as something old people get – not someone in their 20s.”
High cholesterol is believed to affect around six in 10 adults in the UK, but despite this, awareness about it is generally low. Looking back, McCall says she believes her high-fat diet was the main culprit, although genetics likely had a part to play too, as there's a history of high cholesterol in her family.
“Back then, I would refer to myself as a ‘butter fiend', as butter and sugar would be my absolute guilty pleasure,” she says. “And with being half-French, processed meats such as salami were also something I devoured on a regular basis.
“I now understand the fat content in salami is just horrific, and so that is something I've really dialled back on and see more as a treat now. White pasta and white bread were also things I always had in my cupboards. I never really thought to make the switch to wholemeal, as at the time, I didn't think it would make much difference to my health.”
Now, her diet is much more balanced. McCall says she's been learning “so much” about fibre from gut health guru Dr Megan Rossi (@theguthealthdoctor). She also tries incorporate 30 different types of plant-based foods into her diet each week.
“As well as meat, I went from full-fat milk to semi-skimmed, which was a big sacrifice for me as I would often drink pints of milk, as I thought it was good for me in terms of calcium. But with it being full-fat, it wasn't great for keeping my cholesterol levels down.”
One great sacrifice McCall made, which she “continues to grieve for”, is cheese. “My half-sister and I lived together for a long time and I remember our favourite dinner would be a ‘picky plate' of assorted meats, cheeses, French bread and tons of butter.
“Now I very rarely eat cheese, other than a sprinkling of Parmesan on my pasta or at Christmas time – I definitely see it more as a treat now.”
Luckily, she really enjoys eating healthily, and her diet is just one way she's looking after her wellbeing in her 50s.
“As I've gotten older, fitness has taken on greater importance and as a result has become more of an interest. I now make time for 30 minutes of exercise a day, five days a week, just to keep on top of my fitness, and that may be split between one or two runs and then the other three days I'll do an at-home workout.
“Essentially, I look at my body like an engine and it constantly needs fine-tuning to be working at top capacity,” she adds. “And so I now think about various aspects of my body, such as my bones, my heart, muscle tone, staying strong, and my overall mental health – all things I never really thought too much about when in my 20s – and how best I can nourish them.”
Over the years, McCall has spoken openly about her battle and triumph over drug addiction, including a dependency on heroin when she was in her 20s.
“I'm really open with my kids – they know about my history with addiction and we talk about that, but with my parents' and grandparents' generations, it was quite the opposite.”
McCall says part of the reason she was caught short by her cholesterol diagnosis was because she was in the dark about her family history. “Since then, things have changed, and we can now identify health issues through hereditary causes and the stigma of talking about health issues has definitely faded, which is a great thing.
“After I overcame my addiction issues in my early 20s and quit smoking at 25, I naturally became much more health conscious – but of course in hindsight, you always think you could have done more to live a healthier life.”
So, if she could give her younger self some health advice, what would it be? “I think I would tell my younger self, ‘Do what you're doing, just bear in mind that you will pay a price for the decisions and lifestyle choices you make now in the long run'. I think that's generally sound advice for people in their 20s.”
:: Davina McCall is supporting Raisio Nutrition Ltd's Cholesterol Uncovered campaign, to encourage people to reconsider their diet and lifestyle choices by highlighting what's happening under the surface. Visit raisio.com/en/cholesterol-uncovered