One of Australia’s leading weight loss experts and author of seven best-selling cookbooks, Annette Sym opens up about her rollercoaster ride from obesity to health advocate, mentor and award-winning businesswoman. Ingrid Nelson shares her story.
At 61 years of age, Annette Sym is the picture of glowing health and vitality. Author, mentor, weight-loss queen and multi-award-winning businesswoman, she has sold over four million copies of her cookbooks since she launched book one of her Symply Too Good series almost two decades ago.
But life could have been so different for the effervescent Annette we know today, had she not had that “sliding door” moment 20-odd years ago.
An overweight child and obese adult, it’s her story of re-invention and longevity in her industry that is most remarkable, so let’s go back to where it all began.
“I was a fat kid. I was always the biggest in my class, my nickname at high school was Porky,” says Annette.
“As a young girl you want to be like your friends and wear the mini skirts and tight jeans and it’s sad when you feel you’re less than. Issues as a teenager are enough without having to worry about body image. I have always had a happy disposition and used to laugh it off but of course deep down that wasn’t how I really felt.”
Having always battled with her weight, at her heaviest Annette weighed in at 100 kilograms.
“I know now that I ate for comfort to make myself feel better, but I was always up and down like a yoyo, always trying diets and would lose weight but put it all back on again. I remember by the time I got married I had to have my wedding dress custom made because you couldn’t buy one bigger than a size 16 back in 1974.”
It was a photograph of a very overweight 36-year-old Annette that was a pivotal moment in her life and one that launched her successful career.
“My girlfriend sent me a happy snap of me walking out of the ocean with my daughter Jenna, who was three at the time, and I was horrified, just horrified. That’s when I thought, you have to do something. It really rocked my world. A lot of people say to me, ‘But didn’t you look in the mirror?’ But it just didn’t register until I saw it (in the photograph).”
“I sat down and thought I could diet, but I tried that and it wasn’t working, so I decided to instead focus on being a healthy person. That’s what I really craved. I just wanted to feel well. I wasn’t, I had sciatica and I was tired all the time. I had a young family and a gorgeous husband and I wanted to be a good role model to them.”
I know now I ate for comfort to make myself feel better, but I was always up and down like a yoyo, always trying diets and would lose weight but put it all back on again.”
Annette started by taking traditional recipes she would cook for her family and replacing certain ingredients to create a healthier version. It worked and the weight started to drop off.
“I remember the first night I decided to make lasagne. I got my traditional recipe out and used the knowledge I learned over the years of dieting to make a healthier version. The kids loved it, (my husband) Bill loved it. At my next weigh-in I had lost a kilo. It was a Hallelujah moment!
“I realised food could be my friend as long as I chose the healthier ways and there was no guilt involved. I tried to do it as balanced as I could and fitting it in with the family by creating dishes we loved like pizza and tuna mornay and stroganoff, just low fat versions and that is where the idea for the cookbooks started.”
It took Annette 20 months to shed the weight and she has remained in her healthy weight range for more than 20 years – testament to her message of keeping it simple.
Annette and her husband Bill borrowed the money from his parents to self publish 10,000 copies of the first cookbook of Annette’s recipes and when it sold out in two weeks they knew they were on to something.
“I never imagined such success, it was phenomenal,” says Annette. “I was just hoping we wouldn’t get into debt. I think part of the appeal was the fact we had a picture of each recipe in the book, which wasn’t really done back then, that and the fact they were simple.
“In all the years I have been writing my cookbooks I have seen many fad diets come and go because they are really not sustainable. I don’t like diets that tell you you can’t eat a certain food group. You can’t just take out entire food groups. You need carbs to nurture your brain for example and when you overload on meat, that can be dangerous for your kidneys.
“I’m all for a healthy lifestyle, it’s really common sense eating. Being responsible and looking at what you are putting in your mouth.”
But it hasn’t all been an easy road for this plucky businesswoman, she has done the hard yards and is still just as involved in the business today as she was in the beginning. Starting from very humble beginnings, Annette spent the early years touring regional Australian towns to promote her books and build her brand.
“It was a rollercoaster ride in the beginning. We didn’t have a publishing house, we did it all on our own. It was all about touring. I would go to Ballarat for example and cook in a few different newsagents and we would do tastings and sell a bucket load of books. It was hard work but the rewards were worth it. People think the hard work is writing the book but it’s when it’s released that you have to work.
“I think people could really relate to me because I was real. I had walked the walk. I knew how they felt, because I knew how the Annette of 100 kilos felt, and I remember how the chunky school girl felt.”
In all the years I have been writing my books I have seen all the fad diets come and go because they are really not sustainable. I don’t like diets that tell you you can’t eat a certain food group at all anymore.
Nineteen years and seven books later and Annette says the inspiration behind her books remains the same – the people she helps.
“The people make it worthwhile for me. When someone hugs you and bursts into tears and says, ‘Thank you so much for your books, they changed my life I’ve lost 30 kilos’, you can’t get better than that,” says Annette.
“They are the ones who do it but I am so proud to be the facilitator to help them get there by giving them the tools – the cookbooks, the mentoring program.”
In 2015 Annette launched her Symply Too Good healthy shake range, which has also been a resounding success story.
“It started because I wanted a shake for myself. I have never been a big breakfast person. I would skip it when I was fat but then by mid morning I was eating everything in sight. I needed something quick and I am not into cereal for breakfast. Women in particular are so stretched these days, I wanted them to have a great start to their day and they had to taste good too.”
Chatting with Annette at her home office in beautiful Buderim, the thing that strikes me most about this vibrant woman is her zest for life and energy levels you would expect from someone half her age. So what’s her secret?
“I reckon the key to my success is my husband, Bill,” she says, her eyes welling up with tears. “He is just such a support. We have been married 42 years, we have grown up together and we have worked together since book three.
“He does things that just keep me balanced and feeling centered. I feel so appreciated and loved. I’m very much about gratitude and I know I’m the luckiest girl in the world to have him.”
Annette also credits a happy work/life balance to her success, something she says took time to evolve.
“My advice would be when you are tired and struggling, find that place where you recharge, it could the movies, it could be the beach. For me it’s the beach, it grounds me. I get in the ocean. I feel cleansed and the world feels like a better place.
“When you look at work/life balance, having a healthy diet is pivotal because you get that energy to give you the bounce in your step. Keeping it fresh and realising there are times when you don’t feel like work is important, honour it. I try to have Fridays off and that is my gift to myself and on Sundays work is a no-go zone. You have to switch off, particularly when you work from home like I do. If the phone rings the answering machine will get it. You need to have that down time.”
As Annette reflects on her incredible journey I ask her what the old Annette might look like today had she not made that crucial decision to become a healthier version of herself.
“I have often thought of that sliding door moment. She would look older, she could possibly have type 2 diabetes or heart concerns – but I don’t, I am happy and healthy.
“The weight loss also impacted on other areas of my life. I feel it’s so important to look after me, with healthy food, massages, facials and days where I just do nothing. It’s not selfish, it’s prioritising the most important person in my life and that’s me because if I’m not healthy and happy, that affects my husband and children and grandchildren. My family is everything to me.”
With no sign of slowing down anytime soon I ask Annette what’s next for the self-professed queen of re-invention.
“When I launched book seven, I said that’s my last book. I decided instead of writing another book I would look at the older books and bring them up to now, there is so much in them. We have spent the past year giving every single recipe an update, new photos and breathed new life into them and ‘zhoozhed’ them (that’s my favourite word) and they look amazing,” she says.
“There’s still life in the good old tuna mornay I say.”
Looking around the walls of Annette’s home office I am struck by how many awards she has received over the years, but it was one in particular that was a highlight of her career.
“Winning the Telstra National Micro Business of the Year was a moment I will never forget – it gave me my moment I never had as a kid,” says Annette.
“I didn’t win the races. I was a chunky little kid, my chubby little legs were never going to get me to first place.
“But this was my accolade. I proved to myself I was so much more than just a good cook and when I had difficult days I would go back there and it would make me happy again.
“It wasn’t about ego, it was the pat on the back saying, ‘Good on you girl, Porky would have been proud’.”