When JJ Peterson first walked into Ray Stewart’s Spanish Fork home in February 2015, he looked for clues indicating that the two men shared the same LDS faith. It didn’t take Peterson long to spot a copy of the Book of Mormon.
“There was part of me that said, ‘Yes, I can talk to him about things that are extremely important that everyone should know and realize,’” Peterson recalled. “Just being a child of God, your innate and divine potential, you have to be able to live up to that. It was super powerful to be able to use stuff like that throughout Ray’s transformation.”
Peterson, a personal trainer, and Stewart, his new client, were meeting for the first time as participants on A&E's new weight-loss show, "Fit to Fat to Fit." The show is based on a book written by Drew Manning who in 2011, while working as a personal trainer in Utah, intentionally gained 70 pounds to better understand the struggles his clients faced amid their efforts to lose weight.
Peterson and Stewart, who live just over a half-hour away from one another, had never met, but the two members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints instantly felt a bond.
“He was such a good-looking guy,” Stewart said, laughing when asked about his first impression of Peterson. “But at the same time, my first impression was just his smile. Something felt so familiar about him. It was like while meeting him for the first time, I had known him for years. It was one of those powerful moments in life where you know this is someone the Lord put in my path.”
Peterson felt the same thing.
“I felt this immediate connection,” Peterson said. “Like, ‘Ray, I have known you for a long time. Let’s do this.’ I just felt like this was something I was supposed to do.”
During their first meeting, in an exchange that didn't air in the Jan. 19 episode, Peterson told Stewart how he came to be a trainer.
When Peterson was 3 years old, both of his kidneys shut down, and he was diagnosed with hemolytic uremic syndrome. He lay in a hospital bed while his grandparents, who had been called to preside over the Washington Seattle Mission, met with President Thomas S. Monson to be set apart for missionary service. They asked President Monson if he would be willing to give their grandson a blessing, and he agreed. A few days later, Peterson was released from the hospital.
“I think it was a blessing that even as a 3-year-old I have the most vivid memory of that whole thing,” Peterson said. “ I fell in love with how the body works and why it doesn’t work at times and why we get sick. I fell in love with helping people realize their best selves and how the emotional, physical and spiritual are all so interconnected.”
Peterson has been a trainer since he was 18 years old, taking a two-year break to serve an LDS mission in the Ohio Cincinnati Mission. He and his wife, Erika, a nutritionist, are the parents of three children.
Meanwhile, Stewart and his wife, Julie, have tried to have a child for the last 10 years. After two cycles of in vitro fertilization, one of which resulted in Julie becoming pregnant only to later lose the baby, the couple decided to consider adoption.
“In the end, it was what we were supposed to go through,” Stewart said. “The whole infertility journey completely solidified what’s important in our lives, and we’ve grown so much stronger because of it. There’s a silver lining to every dark cloud, and I have a much stronger marriage because I went through all of that difficulty.”
Stewart's desire to be a father motivated him throughout the weight-loss process. He knew that a mother placing her child for adoption might disregard his application because of his weight. This was a motivation Peterson could understand.
“There are so many reasons you fall in love with Ray because he’s just so real, but I know three times over the joy that comes from having kids and being a dad, and Ray and Julie haven’t tasted that yet,” Peterson said. “I want that so badly because looking at an eternal perspective, that’s what this life is all about, eternal families, so I really wanted him to be in a spot where he felt worthy to be a father where he was comfortable and healthy, within a place where he felt comfortable adopting.”
Peterson first saw A&E's casting call for trainers in October 2014. When he applied for the show, he didn't know that the trainers would be required to gain weight. But after learning about the show’s twist, he remained interested. After mental and physical evaluations to ensure that Peterson was healthy enough to complete the process, he was selected and cleared to participate.
Stewart learned about the new weight-loss show when his sister told him about the casting call for overweight clients. Stewart had previously submitted an application video to NBC's “The Biggest Loser” and received a callback but didn’t make it on the show. Like Peterson, Stewart knew nothing about the show’s twist, so when Peterson arrived the first day, Stewart was dressed in his workout clothes, ready to go.
He had no idea that Peterson would spend the next four months gaining weight so he could better relate to Stewart. It was not until the cameras were rolling that Stewart was informed of the plot twist, and he said his heart broke for Peterson.
"Immediately I knew it was going to be horrible for him," Stewart said, knowing how taxing the weight gain would be.
Stewart now recognizes what a difference Peterson’s sacrifice made in his weight-loss journey.
“It helped me so much, especially early on, because it took away any excuse I could tell myself,” Stewart said. “Like that he would never understand it because he grew up healthy. ... He decided to go flirt with those demons that had plagued me my whole life, and how dare I give anything but my absolute best when he was willing to do that?”
Peterson consumed 6,300 calories every day for four months, and he felt the physical and emotional effects. He remembers crying and feeling separated from his wife, who continued to lead a healthy lifestyle.
“I had never dealt with any of that before,” Peterson said. “So now having gone through that and coming back to good health, I just have this new perspective. It’s like the opposition in all things; you can’t really know how good the sweet is until you taste the bitter.”
With a new appreciation for the sweet, the two set out to lose weight together.
“There was just an understanding that everything was deeper than any one activity we were doing,” Stewart said. “Take our first workout. JJ talked to me about remembering who I am, not just my name but he alluded to the fact that I’m a child of God, and there was just that whole undertone at times where I know I’m not just being fit to be a better husband and hopefully a father, but the entire time I felt sustained that Heavenly Father wanted me to be a stronger, more able servant.”
Stewart learned there is no secret to losing weight, even on a reality TV show. He said he discovered that losing weight is 80 percent nutrition and that “you can’t possibly outwork a bad diet.” He followed the meal plan Peterson prepared for him, a plan modeled after the Word of Wisdom.
“There are so many fad diets and crazy diet plans and juices, but my wife and I just like to keep it simple,” Peterson said. “Is there anyone who knows better than Heavenly Father? We think not, so we really just model our life around the 89th section (of Doctrine and Covenants), right around the Word of Wisdom. It’s such a huge gift, and I think it’s underutilized. People are looking for this magic pill or the next great diet plan when really it’s been right in front of our faces.”
Peterson returned to his original weight while Stewart lost 147 pounds (he has lost another 7 pounds since the show was filmed). Stewart’s wife, Julie, joined him in the endeavor, losing 75 pounds on her own. She didn’t work out with Peterson, but each day, she would ask what they had done in their workout and say, “OK, I’m going to do that tomorrow.”
“On her own, she would be just quietly amazing, and that’s kind of who she is anyway,” Stewart said. “She’s just quietly amazing.”
While the couple does not yet have a baby and no papers have been signed, Stewart is confident that they will eventually bring a child into their home. In the meantime, he feels his marriage has been strengthened.
“When you feel able and confident and happy, you’re going to be a better husband, you’re going to be a better wife, and when both husband and wife are doing that, you’re just naturally going to have a better marriage,” Stewart said. “ As we have both improved ourselves, we have exponentially improved our marriage.”
Peterson said the process gave him “a friend for life” and a new perspective.
“I was coming from a place of judgment, and I didn’t fully understand,” Peterson said. “Not to say that I fully understand now, but I have a greater appreciation now for someone who is trying to get healthy and trying to transform their life.”