Many television viewers know Melissa Joan Hart as the title character in “Sabrina, the Teenage Witch,” which ended a seven-year run in 2003. More recently, Hart was seen working her magic on the dance floor in last season’s “Dancing With the Stars.” She finished the physically demanding show mid-season, but just a year earlier she might not have made it that far.
With heart disease in her family tree—and more focused on health as a mother of two boys, Mason, now 4, and Brady, nearly 2—Hart decided to put renewed attention on her diet and fitness regimen. In May, a few months before beginning the arduous “Dancing With the Stars,” a newly svelt Hart appeared on tabloid magazines. She was 43 pounds lighter than when she had started her program in January 2009.
Hart knows that healthy living is not just physical. Part of the Long Island native’s new lifestyle involved a move with her husband Mark Wilkerson and their children to her northeast roots. “I want a better place to raise a family, I want seasons,” she says, “things from my childhood that were important to me that I want to give my kids.”
Our bicoastal conversations with Hart began from Los Angeles, as she was seated in her “Dancing With the Stars” makeup chair receiving electric stimulation therapy for aching muscles. “Some of the swivels and turns can be a little demanding,” she told us then. We spoke with her again last month, just as she moved into her new Connecticut home—one year after she began her diet and fitness plan.
Energy Times: How are you doing with maintaining your weight and health regimen?
Melissa Joan Hart: With all the traveling, I have not been able to make it to my nutritionist. I’m starting a cleanse on Monday just to treat myself and get back to neutral and start again, after the holidays. There have been a lot of schedule changes for me so I haven’t been able to hit the gym as much as I want and schedule my diet as well. I’m just getting back on the horse. Literally since the last time we spoke, I have been home for three weeks. I moved to Connecticut on Sunday so I’m still trying to unpack and get my life in order.
I don’t want to start gaining weight back. Every once in a while you misbehave a little bit. I’m still lean and strong from carrying around 25- and 35-pound babies. I just need to target the middle area a little bit. I just want to clean up my diet.
ET: What is involved in the cleanse you mentioned?
MJH: The cleanse is a new metabolism cleanse for two weeks. It’s supplements and powders and shakes twice a day for two weeks. Hot lemon and water and cayenne pepper. Then a shake for breakfast, and hummus and half a pita for a morning snack. Then a chicken wrap with avocado for lunch, and then another snack in the afternoon—some almonds, sliced turkey. Then a shake for dinner.
Then the whole time I’m making sure I’m taking my vitamins, getting my sleep and regulating my body temperature with hot and cold showers to make my body work a little harder to get rid of the toxins and to get the toxins out of my skin. The vitamins I take are a multivitamin, fish oil, calcium and L-carnitine. I make sure I really get my calcium since I have kids now. The L-carnitine helps digestion. My nutritionist recommended it. It’s really helped with my weight loss and makes me feel a little stronger. My husband takes vitamins; he takes fish oil as well. And we both like to do protein shakes a lot. He and I do a lot of shakes.
ET: What are the biggest lessons you’ve learned about maintaining your health while you’re on the road?
MJH: It’s really hard. It’s helped me a lot to make sure I hydrate wherever I go, carry my supplements with me and wherever I go get good sleep because that will keep the body functioning. I usually try to carry almonds and snack bars. Otherwise it’s about trying to find good food. Sometimes you have to do the fast food thing, but then you try to make up for it when you get settled wherever you’re going. If you’re traveling, go to a local supermarket and get some healthy things to keep around so you don’t have hungry moments.
ET: Describe your experience on “Dancing With the Stars.”
MJH: I came in 8th or 9th, right in the middle. It was really difficult, pressure-wise. It was physical, but I didn’t get far enough for it to get really physical. For me it was all about the pressure. I was so nervous and excited and tired. It was a long haul—12 weeks for me. It was difficult to work at that level for that long, and I can’t imagine if I went a week or two longer what I would have felt like.
ET: You told me that there is heart disease in your family. What steps do you recommend to others who have a family history and want to maintain good heart health?
MJH: We do have a little heart disease in the family. We all kind of know the drill, and I think it’s important to pay attention, even if it’s just small diet changes. If you drink soda, it’s kind of an easy thing to cut something like that out. If I cut out my latte, that helps. You should take a walk every day. Change one little thing in your diet for a month and you’ll see a difference. That should help all around with your health.
ET: Tell me more about what prompted you to embark on your new health regimen one year ago.
MJH: It was time. The baby was nine months old, ten months old. I was starting in January to really take the weight off. You know after the holidays it’s easier to kind of jump start it. I really wanted to find time in my schedule to go to the gym but I wasn’t going to go to the gym until I got my eating under control so I just started cutting things out of my diet. Then I started going to the gym more often. The more I did both of those things, the better I felt so I kept doing it. By May I had it off.
I hit my goal as far as pounds, but I wasn’t worried about taking off pounds; I was worried about taking off body fat. I got down to like 17% body fat. I was very happy with that. I think that after the baby it was somewhere around 25%. I started really high, and I always got stuck at 20% or 22%, but I got down to 17% so that was really encouraging for me.
ET: What did you start cutting out of your diet before you began including the fitness element?
MHJ: I went on a cleanse for about six weeks to really hit it hard and just get the weight off. I started with cutting out sugar and then I cut out dairy and went to rice milk and goat cheese and that sort of thing. Then I cut out starches like pasta and bread. After that I cut out other starches like potatoes and rice, corn. And I made sure I ate regularly, like five times a day. I made smart choices and ate small portions. For me it comes down to the portions. You don’t want to get so full that you feel awful. Food is about feeling good and if you’re not going to feel good then what’s the point?
You don’t want to eat until you’re full because then it’s too late; you want to eat until you’re happy. For me, whatever I want to eat I take a few bites out of something and then I’m done. I just realized I don’t need an appetizer and an entrée and a dessert. I order two little appetizers and I share one with someone and have a salad as an entrée—that kind of thing. And the less you eat, your stomach gets used to that portion size and you just naturally eat less.
ET: So it took you about five months to reach your goals, and then it was a matter of maintenance.
MJH: I started in January  really slowly and really started to step it up right around my birthday in April. Six weeks is how long it took me to get down to the size I really wanted.
I started slow because if you jump into anything, your long-term chances for success are not as great. It’s a marathon, not a sprint. I wanted to lose weight and keep the weight off. You have to take it off slowly. I don’t like to say, “I’m not going to eat anything starting tomorrow.” I think it’s better to say, “Next week I’m cutting out sugar and the next week I’m cutting out dairy and the next week I’m cutting out starches.” Do it slowly. And the week after that, once I have all that under control and I’m feeling good with my eating, then I’m going to go to the gym. If I go to the gym before I do all that then I realize, “Oh well, I went to the gym today so now I’m going to eat [more recklessly].” So I make sure my eating is under control before I step up my workout.
ET: What was the fitness regimen that you started once you got your diet in order?
MJH: A tread and tone class at the gym, so it’s 30 minutes on the treadmill and 30 minutes on the floor—all kinds of things using the exercise bands and the step machines, lots of squats and ten-pound weights. Each time you work a different muscle group, whether it’s biceps and triceps or shoulders or chest or legs. I would usually do about three to five days a week, depending on how strong I was feeling or what my schedule is like. And you know chasing after two small boys will really keep you in shape, too.
I have snowboarded for 17, 18 years now. I picked up wake boarding thanks to my husband about three years ago. I like to wake board in the summer and I love to do cross-country skiing.
I also go through times when I do a lot of hiking. I’ll hike with my kids in a backpack or in a stroller and push them up a hill or go for hikes with friends. But I’ll usually do that two or three times a week for a few months, then I don’t do it again for awhile. I just haven’t been able to find something that really sticks, and that’s what I’m looking for right now. In Connecticut there is a rowing club that I want to join for the summer and do cross-country skiing in the winter.
ET: Ironically, you opened the Sweet Harts Sweets candy store in Los Angeles the same week some pictures of you in your slimmer shape appeared on tabloid magazine covers.
MJH: It was great. It was perfect. It was so contradictory.
I feel like ice cream and candy stores have always done well, even in the Depression. Movies and ice cream—those are the things I’m in business in. I just feel like everyone wants a place that makes them feel like a kid again. Everyone wants a place to go with their family at night, especially in these economic times. You’re not going out to dinner; why not ride your bike to the local ice cream store and have a little ice cream and for five bucks get the whole family ice cream instead of getting dinner for fifty bucks?
For me, it’s all about control. I went there pretty much everyday when I was on my diet. I had a little frozen yogurt with some fruit on top and there was nothing wrong with that. It made me feel like I indulged. I had something that made me feel good and happy. And the place is such a beautiful place that it really just gives you that warm feeling, kind of like walking out of Disneyland.
ET: You also have some healthy offerings there, like organic lollipops.
MJH: We try to have some sugar-free, dairy-free, some options for people who are looking out for different problems or complications, but really it’s a place to come treat yourself.