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Health and wellness

Extreme dieting: Hong Kong actor was left looking like a cancer victim – when all he wanted was the perfect body

American Brian Burrell has acted in dozens of Hong Kong films and TVB dramas, but his efforts to look right for a variety of parts meant he took drastic measures to lose weight. He reveals some of his worst experiences

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 28 August, 2018, 7:46am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 28 August, 2018, 7:46am

Hong Kong actor Brian Burrell initially decided to take fitness and diet seriously when he landed his first role in a big movie.

That was in 2008 and the film was Ip Man 2: Legend of the Grandmaster. He played a ringside announcer and translator. Burrell, who is from Salt Lake City, in the American state of Utah, found himself working alongside Darren Shahlavi, an English actor previously cast as a stuntman in 300, an epic war movie known for its six-packed warriors.

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“Darren and I were about the same age at the time,” said Burrell, who is now 46. “So he truly inspired me to take better care of myself and I started reading and learning everything that I could.”

Burrell settled in Hong Kong permanently in 1999, and has acted in dozens of movies and TVB dramas. He is fluent in four languages – English, Khmer, and two forms of Chinese, Cantonese and Mandarin – and has a degree in Chinese Literature and Asian Studies from the University of Utah.

His personality is one of extremes. Pushing himself to the limit in all aspects of life is his way, and diet and fitness were no different. Weighing some 127kg (280 pounds) when he started his acting career, Burrell began testing out various nutritional plans. He soon turned himself into a human “guinea pig” as he shed weight rapidly.

One of his first forays into extreme dieting was the Master Cleanse, or lemonade, diet, where he drank only squeezed lemon water with maple syrup and cayenne pepper for 10 days straight – nothing else. Burrell said it worked well numerous times to help him drop weight and shed those final pounds for an acting role. But one of the last times he did it in 2011, he admits he went too far.

“I was so skinny that people thought I had cancer,” he says. “It was just too much.”

Burrell says testing the limits of his body was part of the allure of extreme dieting and fitness. However, pushing it too far was something he flirted with on more than one occasion.

I was so skinny that people thought I had cancer. It was just too much
Hong Kong actor Brian Burrell

“I had lost so much weight, and at the age of 40 had come so close to having that six-pack, but it just wasn’t enough, so I just kept pushing myself diet-wise to get to that.”

Burrell also tried drinking only water once every four days for 24 hours in 2012, and the results were amazing. But once again he overdid it.

“I got greedy again,” he says. “I did the Master Cleanse after that and went too far. It was not healthy at all.”

Burrell says he reached his limit when he did the seven-day water fast, which has its roots in ancient Chinese medicine. “I’ve tried it a few times but I couldn’t get past the third day on just water,” he says.

He noted the first time he tried the water fast, he also had a huge cheat meal before starting – a two-pizza combo meal from Pizza Hut. “And then I didn’t eat for three days after that.”

He was able to do regular activities like hiking, but by the third day was just too hungry to carry on.

The actor says he now watches his food intake during the week and sticks to a strict plan while doing intermittent fasting, but then at weekends eats whatever he wants.

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“I’d encourage anyone to learn to understand your own body first [before dieting],” he says.

The dieting industry has boomed lately along with the fitness industry. Accuracy Research LLP estimates the global diet and weight-loss management market is growing at around five per cent annually and is expected to be worth US$85.6 billion by 2025.

While the dieting industry has exploded, other studies have come out against dieting. One of these was a groundbreaking study by the University of California, Los Angeles, in 2007 which found it can actually cause weight gain in the long run.

Nathan Solia, managing director of Elite Personal Training Studio in Hong Kong, has been working in the field of nutrition and fitness for close to two decades, and has helped Burrell to achieve a healthy diet that works.

Solia has seen countless examples of people taking dieting, as well as fitness regimes, too far, and says most mistakes are made when people get into fitness and nutrition for the wrong reasons.

“It’s all about promoting health and well-being,” he says, “as opposed to just wanting to look good and getting that six-pack.”

Solia says this applies to diets and cleanses, the latter of which is designed to help clean your colon. However, he said many people do cleanses for the physical effects of starving your body of food.

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“What people tend to do is a pseudo cleanse. They’ll drink lemon water for a week and they’re doing it for the wrong reasons, to lose weight,” he says. “And I find most of those people simply gain that weight back right after because they’re so hungry.

“I remember one time I tried it. Afterwards, I was like a kid in a candy store, just gorging on food.”