Photography by Paul Buceta
Jill Bunny is quick to say she’s the strongest she’s ever been.
At 33 years old, the statuesque health and fitness specialist is built of solid muscle, a result of the science-backed training and nutrition methods she uses for both herself and her clients (courtesy of years of education on the human body.
But she’ll also tell you that getting here has been far from easy from easy. She’s faced multiple health issues in the last decade, beginning with a two-year battle with an eating disorder that diminished her 5’11” frame to a mere 97 lbs. After living for five years in London, England with her then-husband, the Ontario, Canada native returned home in 2011 almost unrecognizable to her family members. “The look on my dad’s face was the turning point for me. He thought I was going to die,” she says. “That’s when I realized that my parents love me and that I had value.”
In an effort to recover, Jill discovered fitness, and vowed to rebuild her body and health through bodybuilding and nutrition. She hired a coach to show her the ropes and a year later, stepped on stage for the first time in the Bikini category of a small fitness competition. “Like my eating disorder, competing was another form of control,” she says. “There are positives and negatives to competing, but it gave me a sense of purpose.”
By the time she retired from the stage in 2016, Jill was one of the highest ranked competitors in her division, holding championship titles in two Arnold Amateurs and the Olympia Europe. Despite her winning streak—and an unmet goal of earning her Pro status within her federation—further health complications forced her to hang up her heels.
Earlier that year, at the age of 30, vision problems in her left eye would turn out to be multiple sclerosis (MS), a disease that affects the spinal cord and optic nerves. “Living with MS is different day to day,” she says. “If I’m stressed or tired I see the affects more. I can get body pain on my left side and if I train too hard, I can’t recover properly. And extreme fatigue means I’m in bed by 8 or 9 p.m. every night.”
To make matters worse, a short time after her final competition, Jill was diagnosed with thyroid cancer. After undergoing surgery to remove her thyroid, she struggled with adjusting to the hormone medication—the side effects of which included depression, suicidal thoughts, and weight gain. “It took six months to a year to figure out the dosage. It was hell.”
As difficult as the recovery process was, Jill considered her condition an opportunity—not a limitation. In the year it took her to shed the excess weight, she gained a deeper understanding of how nutrition and mindset affect the body, along with a new perspective. “I totally understood where my clients who struggled with weight loss were coming from.”
For Jill, this was a turning point in her nutrition coaching strategies, tossing out the “cookie cutter” approach of assigning meal plans, and embracing each client’s individual needs—starting with their thoughts. Applying her education in psychology and Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) to weight loss, she taught clients to respond to negative thoughts towards food and body image with positive affirmations she calls “helpful responses.” “I’ve learned to listen to people’s unhelpful thoughts and questions and help them retrain their brain in a realistic way,” she says.
Example of a CBT Helpful Response:
Unhelpful Thought: I wish I was losing weight more quickly.
Helpful Response: When has losing weight quickly ever helped me to keep it off? The faster I’ve lost it in the past, the faster I’ve gained it back. It's okay to take an extra month or two to lose the weight.
And it’s working. After seeing positive, long-term results with her own clients, Jill is aiming higher—much higher. “I want to bring this into the fitness world.”
Her main goal? To launch a CBT certification course for other industry professionals. “We are basically frontline therapists without the skills. We need to understand things at a deeper level so we can help our clients.”
Now her next hurdle is bringing her methods to the mainstream. While she knows she has her work cut out for her, Jill says she’s up to the task. “I literally wake up with a sense of purpose. My MS might eventually flare up to where I’m in a wheelchair, or I may wake up one day in a hospital bed. But I’ll know I’ve done something to make an impact on people’s lives.”
See below for Jill’s “Three-Day Sample Menu” for balanced and satisfying eating. Or click to download the menu with recipes.
Jill’s Three-Day Sample Menu
Grab a glimpse into how our cover athlete eats for wellness, balance, and energy.
Day 1 - Training
Day 2 - Training
Day 3 - Active Rest/Off
Sweet Potato Pancakes
Cooked quinoa (with cinnamon and stevia) + handful of walnuts or almonds on top
PB&J Overnight Oats
Breakfast burrito: 2 whole eggs + 4 egg whites + veggies in a gluten-free or Ezekiel wrap
Oven-baked white fish on rice, handful of olives & veggies
Tuna avocado salad, served with white potato
Chicken + beets + handful of nuts on a large, leafy salad
Yogurt Chia Seed Pudding
Berry Smoothie: 1 cup almond milk + ⅓ avocado + ½ cup berries + 5 walnuts + 1 scoop vanilla protein powder + ice
Salmon, mashed cauliflower, stir-fried veggies in coconut oil
Spaghetti squash with ground turkey, served with veggies
Slow cooker pulled chicken with sautéed veggies, gluten-free bun