10.06.2015

Interview with Extreme Weight Loss Star Dan "Panda" Smith

Dan "Panda" Smith at his Extreme Weight Loss finale show.
"I wanted a 'superhero' body, with big rippling biceps, pecs, and six pack abs and [to] look like...an Asian Spartan warrior from the movie 300."

For most people, such a goal would sound a bit lofty, but Dan "Panda" Smith essentially achieved this dream during Extreme Weight Loss Season 5. Starting at a dangerously heavy 313 pounds (nearly 142 kgs), Smith was put through his paces by trainers Chris and Heidi Powell through daily exercise sessions and a complete diet change. Although Chris expressed his skepticism concerning Smith's success, Panda was able to reach his goal weight in three months, an EWL first. Furthermore, by the end of his EWL year, Smith's body fat percentage was less than Chris Powell's!

Nevertheless, as many know, obesity is rarely due to a person's unhealthy lust for food. Oftentimes, unhealthy eating habits and weight gain is a symptom of unseen issues and emotional struggles. 

Adopted from Korea and raised in rural America. Abuse from an older brother. Coming out as a teen. These were the invisible struggles that contributed to Smith's weight gain. 

Raised in small-town Michigan, Smith found it difficult to learn about his Korean background, and was often the only Asian kid around. Nonetheless, his tattoo is a proud representation of his identity. Along with the Korean flag, it represents the results of his Toljabee, a Korean ceremony which predicts a child's path in life performed when the child is a year old.

Panda before and after his weight loss journey.
"I was born [in the] year of the rabbit, and he's a scholar because [during] the Korean first birthday celebration I picked up pencils from a table of various items, which forecasted that I would be a good scholar...it kind of is true because I was the first in my family to graduate college."

Compounded with a degree of social isolation in his community, finding comfort at home was also difficult for Smith. His older brother terrorized him constantly, taking advantage of the fact that their factory worker parents were often away. Verbal abuse, wielding a shotgun, and locking Smith in an ice chest were just a few of the abusive tactics Smith's brother used to create an environment of fear.

The mental scars from the abuse were naturally still present after Smith shifted the majority of his weight. In order to heal the mental wounds that led him to obesity, Chris Powell encouraged Smith to confront his brother. He took up the challenge. Although he didn't receive the answers he wanted, Smith was able to obtain a degree of closure which would allow him to move on with his life. While he still does not speak to his brother on a regular basis, Smith is thankful for his apology.

"I was sitting there listening to him blaming the medication [he was on], creating excuses and so on...No matter how much I wanted to tell him how wrong he was, it wouldn't have changed it. It's like telling someone that the sky is blue, but in their mind, they truly see green. They'll always see it that way and you can never change that...when he did admit he was a 'Sh!@ty Brother' it was all I needed, because it meant that he at least admitted that he wasn't good...when he apologized, it means that he did feel sorry for his actions within his reality."

Smith having fun with his fiance, Fox.
Like all adolescents, Smith was also going through the stages of discovering his sexuality. In high school, after realizing he identified as gay, he had to face coming out to his family and friends. Positively, the process wasn't as traumatic as it is for many in the LGBT community, "I expected the worst, being thrown out, and being homeless...but I was amazed to find my community so excepting of it."

Smith's grandmother was comically nonchalant and accepting of his identity, "She literally sat down to lunch at her senior living center and said, 'Whelp! Daniel's gay!' and started eating without missing a beat."

Nonetheless, his mother was less enthusiastic about the announcement. The two were always close, and she felt hurt. His father was more accepting, but in order to give his parents time to adjust, he moved away for three months. Luckily, after realizing she would miss out on her son's life if she didn't embrace all of him, his mother began to come around.

It a bear suit, Chris Powell surprised Smith at camp.
Source
"She is far more accepting of it [now]. She's seen me kiss guys[,] in drag, and has come...far [from] where she was back in 2004 when I came out to her."

For children in tough situations, having a safe place is always important. Smith's "safety zone" was summer camp. At camp, he always felt like he could be free, and most importantly, himself.

"During my summers as a camper, I didn't have to worry about being too gay or queeny. I could just be me. That was the first place I found where I could truly be the genuine me."


Smith with fellow EWL participant
Mitzy.
Smith later became a camp counselor in order to make an impact on children's' lives and take part in providing them with sanctuary like his counselors did when he was younger. Youth camp also holds a special place in Smith's life as it was the stage for the beginning of his EWL journey; he was surprised at Camp Kidwell in Michigan by Chris Powell.

During his episode, Smith's struggles were apparent, but he wishes more was shown about the emotional aspects of losing a large amount of weight in a relatively short period of time. The famous EWL skin removal surgery segments were especially abbreviated.

"It's not a simple procedure where I went into surgery and was back on my feet the next day. It was weeks of recover[y], weeks of sleeping sitting up, weeks of being alone with my thoughts and new insecurities that came with weight loss."

Mitzy and Smith post-transformation.
Coming to terms with having a new body was a difficult hurdle to climb for Smith, and he required the help of a psychologist to reach a positive mindset. After being obese for so long, Smith developed what he calls the "hand check" after he reached a healthy weight to ensure he wasn't getting bigger again.

"I used to sit in my car and know that my stomach was three fingers from the steering wheel. After the weight loss, I was a total of three hands and three fingers from [it]. Every time I get in the car I do the 'hand check' to make sure I haven't gotten any wider."

Happily, Smith didn't have to struggle with his insecurities alone. During the filming of EWL, he met his fiance Fox. 

Smith getting active with Fox.
"I open GRINDR [a dating site for gay/bi men] to see a lovely headless torso message me, asking me how my day was going!  So wooed was I by this romantic gesture that I offered us to go to coffee! As I stood at the [S]tarbucks awaiting him, I wondered what this guy would be like.  I had to wonder for an entire hour 'cause he took a nap and stood me up! Well...almost...just as I was about to call him a flake, the headless torso messaged me again and stated that he was on his way...finally he did arrive and we had a lovely [three hour] conversation about Avatar: The Last Airbender. Unfortunately we had to cut the date short because I had to work that evening, but I knew I had to see him again.  The next day I was free and offered him to go hiking with me at Red Rocks...I thought he flaked on me, but this time it was my fault. I typed in the address wrong...We hiked Red Rocks and then had dinner. Ever since then we've been inseparable. The night of my finale, after filming, he popped the question."

Although Smith isn't sure how his wedding will look like, he ensures it will be a fabulous affair.

"I've been wanting a small ceremony and two awesome receptions. One in [Washington state] for his family and friends and one in [Michigan] for my family and friends...maybe [we'll have] themed parties...Fox wants a musical murder mystery ALA Bob's Burgers...With Fox and I you betta werk!"

Fox and his family by his side, Smith enjoyed the almost surreal experience of seeing himself on television at his EWL viewing party in Michigan. The testimony of how far he'd come brought him to tears.

"It was like the ending of one amazing chapter in my life, but at the same time, it was the start of another...[I] kept reliving the different events that they showed and the ones they didn't. It was a whirlwind of emotions."

Smith also found a great workout partner in Fox, and they keep each other on track. Smith's goal was never to be small or skinny. He alternates weights and cardio in order to maintain his muscle mass. Everyday, he works out between an hour and 90 minutes and changes his routine every three months to keep his body guessing. Smith also makes sure his diet is on point.
One of Smith's healthy breakfasts.

"Meal prep is essential for losing and maintaining weight, so planning my meals and proportioning it out helps make it so much easier when it comes to eat[ting]!"

Ice cream, donuts, and fast food—namely Chinese takeout—are "trigger foods" for Smith, but he has found great alternatives like peanut butter Greek yogurt, protein donuts, and a recipe for homemade pad Thai.

Even though fitness has become a major part of his life, Smith's greatest dream is still to help adolescents who are in precarious situations through youth camps and public speaking.

"Ultimately, I want to own and be the director of my own youth camp and have specialty camps for kids of different groups who need a safe place for the summer...I want to have weeks specific[ally] for kids who are struggling to find others like them, such as adoptees, minorities, LGBT youth, leadership training [etc.]"

Smith also enjoys acting despite the frustrations stemming from casting directors' desires to typecast Asian actors in stereotypical roles like the "nerd", "medic", or "an extra in a revival of the King and I". He expresses that roles for bigger Asian people are even more limited.

"As a bigger individual, I could only be the lovable sidekick. But [being] a bigger Asian only meant I could be a sumo wrestler. In the media, [Asians are] extremely under represented."

Smith believes it will take the small effort of every individual to break such stereotypes and underrepresentation. 
Smith and Fox promoting their channel.

"For every person that breaks the stereotype, there are three that reinforce it...we just need more of us...so that people can see that we are just like everyone else. The Latino population was in a similar boat to us a decade ago, but now they are far better represented in the media."

He has faced his fare share of hurdles in life, but it is clear Smith is and will inspire others who feel alone or believe they have a lack of support. As of now, one of Smith's major projects is his YouTube channel—Wild Fierce Fitness—which he runs with Fox. The two hope to inspire others to get active and make positive health choices. However, Smith's ultimate goal is quite humble:

"I am planning on continuing [to be] a positive LGBT and Asian-American Role Model".

Dan "Panda" Smith was a Season 5 participant on ABC's "Extreme Weight Loss". He runs the YouTube channel Wild Fierce Fitness with his fiance, Fox. 

Unless otherwise stated, all photos taken from Smith's Instagram account.

Instagram: @panda.behr
Facebook: Panda Behr

7 comments:

  1. Nevertheless, as many know, obesity is rarely due to a person's unhealthy lust for food. Oftentimes, unhealthy eating habits and weight gain is a symptom of unseen issues and emotional struggles.

    A lot of people don't realize that weight gain (and weight loss) is about a lot more than just eating junk food and not working out. Glad he got himself healthy physically and mentally.

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    1. Unhealthy lust for food lol. That made me laugh for some reason. Obesity has a lot of different contributing factors, many of them are exacerbated by the way our medical system runs. It's problematic that once you've been deemed obese doctors may ignore all other medical issues, like arrhythmia, and just tell you to lose weight while simultaneously withholding a proper medical diagnosis and treatment. Money matters for sure, and oftentimes you will be paid less at work for being a fat woman. So if you need money for weight loss programs or to access healthier foods, which often cost more than less healthier and sometimes more filling and budgetable options, you are fresh out of luck. Weight loss is a thing of economics. If you are always working to make ends meet you don't have time to exercise. If you are genetically predisposed toward a particular body type or weight gain pattern consumptive changes are not going to accomplish anything. It's important to establish if a person's size actually poses a veritable health risk before then instructing them to lose weight. Cause you could simply find bigger bodies repulsive versuses giving someone proper medical advice.

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    2. It's problematic that once you've been deemed obese doctors may ignore all other medical issues, like arrhythmia, and just tell you to lose weight while simultaneously withholding a proper medical diagnosis and treatment.

      This is true, but a lot of problems are only increased while you are obese. Many will go away once you lose weight. Now arrhythmia is one that anyone regardless of their size can have. A lot of athletes have died from it. Especially young kids playing football. But a lot of problems people have will go away if they lose weight. A lot of times they CAN give you a diagnosis and treatment, but if its made worse by caring extra weight then it only deteriorates until you lose the weight. And medications are expensive I know first hand!

      Just because you are genetically predisposed to gain weight does not mean you have to. It just means that its easier to gain weight. You just have to work harder then someone who is predisposed with genes that make them smaller.

      I have worked 12-14 hour shifts and found time to work out. Do I like it...NO, but I have no desire to end up with diabetes like some of my family members losing limbs. And many people have proven you can eat healthy on very little money. You can exercise in your living room or go for a walk. Many people have lost weight just by walking.

      I have weighed as much as 262 pounds at 5'8. The health problems that came with it sucked. The money spent on meds was stupid high. I could either continue on that same path and die before my time or make a change. I have slowly lost the weight and feel a lot better as does my pocketbook.

      If you think the doctor doesn't give proper medical advice then go to another doctor. Not everyone finds a bigger body repulsive. Some are generally concerned about your health.

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  2. He's brave. I don't know if I could have done that at such a weight. Like, the bigger you are, the harder it is to lose all the extra pounds, in my opinion, and your ideal weight goal takes a lot more time and dedication to reach.
    I think part of why he managed to do it was that weight loss and health were his main priorities at that moment. So he could focus on just that. I didn't watch the show but that's the impression I get. As for me, I've lost weight, gained some again. Not to the point where I put myself in danger though. His story is inspiring and reminds me that I can do it again. Well, these days I've been changing some of the stuff I used to eat at breakfast. Little steps.

    I think it's great that he wants to give back in the future, I'm sure he'll find a way to do that.

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    1. Like, the bigger you are, the harder it is to lose all the extra pounds, in my opinion, and your ideal weight goal takes a lot more time and dedication to reach.

      Actually I think its easier the bigger you are once you put your mind to it. A person weighing 500 pounds can drop a lot of weight just changing the way they eat. While someone around 190 would have to change what they eat and exercise. Plus it all depends on if you are male or female too.

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    2. Well, I understand what you mean, at first it's indeed easy, but I do think that when you're big, exercizing is more painful and difficult...I was also referring to the TV show he was in so I guess he had to exercize a lot. That, and the fact that it's just not pounds but deep-rooted habits and emotional stuff you have to deal with, stuff that has piled up for decades...it's different for everyone, I get that, but that's how I see it. My previous message wasn't complete, true.

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    3. Yes I see where you are coming from because being heavy will cause more joint problems especially the knees. I personally do not care for these extreme weight loss shows because they dangerous.

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