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Eating Healthy with Soul Surfer Bethany Hamilton

Surfer Bethany Hamilton was only 13 years old in 2003 when she was attacked by a tiger shark and lost her left arm. She thought her surf career was over, but a little over a year after her life-changing experience, she was back on a board and competing. She also wrote about her experience and getting back in the water in the book Soul Surfer, which became an instant hit and a source of inspiration for kids and adults alike.

More than 10 years after the shark attack, Bethany is still competing and writing. Her latest book is Body & Soul, a collection of fitness and nutrition tips for kids that she wrote with trainer Dustin Dillberg. Bethany recently stopped by the SI Kids offices to talk about the book, why it's important to eat healthy, and how to get started as a surfer.

What made you want to put together a book of workout and food tips? 

My initial inspiration for writing the book was to be an encouragement – starting with teenage girls, and now that I think about it, just all females in general. I just remember when I was a teenager, you go through awkward stages adjusting to your body. And also as an athlete I was starting to take more notice of what I was eating and starting to workout and crosstrain for surfing and I liked how I felt, especially eating right. People ask if I didn’t surf what I would do. I think I would be a nutritionist. I love the art of healing and getting healthier. I eat a normal American diet – fast food, junk food, candy, corn syrup, artificial sweeteners, dyes – all the dumb stuff, and I’m glad that I decided to start changing it because I think when you start eating healthy, you start to crave that more and more. Now I don’t even think twice when I walk past fast food.

Is there a fast food that you miss eating or that you have every once in a while to sort of balance things out? 

Lately, sweet potato fries, which is kind of healthier, but they’re still fries. If I was sitting in front of ice cream and one was this coconut bliss ice cream versus a normal ice cream, I still would go for the coconut bliss because it's a healthier option. So I still have my treats. I love dark chocolate, but I also love getting in the kitchen and making veggies and scrambled eggs and smoothies and shakes and I like how I feel. 

When you started eating healthier, what was the hardest thing to give up or adjust to? 

I think sugar just because it’s so addictive, and like candy and sweets. And I’ll still have treats, but I’m definitely better than when I was younger. Like, I don’t really eat Butterfingers anymore. I think that was my go-to when I would get a treat at the grocery store. There’s so many yummy healthy things that you can have instead. Fruit is so delicious. 

Yeah, and it also has a ton of sugar.

Yeah, it’s a good sugar, but you still shouldn’t go overboard on it. But it’s better than a Butterfinger, which has sugar and like hydrogenated oil and all these crazy things. In the book we talk about things like reading your labels. The more you read your labels, the more you start to understand what you’re actually eating and you start to realize, “Oh, this isn’t so good for me. Maybe I shouldn’t have this too often or even ever." 

Do you have a favorite food in general? 

If I had to narrow it down, probably salads because you can put anything in a salad and make it your own. On Kauai, Hawaii, where I live, fresh produce is so accessible, we get crazy with our salads. 

There are a lot of kids who don't live near fresh food. If one of them reads your book and wants to be a healthy eater, how can they be creative if they don’t have the access? 

We put a lot of thought into the book so it's not just for a wealthy kid who has to have money to do this. For example, the exercises we talk about, you can do anywhere, you don’t need a gym to do it. And same for the recipes. A good thing to do would be to ask your parent to start buying healthier groceries so that you can get in your kitchen and make it yourself. 

You mentioned the workout. For a kid, or anyone, who wants to surf, what kind of workouts are the most important? 

Throughout the book, we highlight Surfer Workouts, which are good for anyone whether you surf or not. Swimming is really good for surfing, and just making sure you have a strong core and stomach and legs. But nothing can really beat actually being in the water and surfing. But it's also about just encouraging girls to get active and finding things they enjoy and finding a friend to go workout with. And if you’re not into working out, maybe find a dance class or maybe just have a dance party in your house or go on a hike. Depending on where you live, find what works best for you. We’re not all trying to be the best surfer in the world, so it’s finding what works for your lifestyle. 

What advice would you give for a kid who wants to get in the water and start surfing? How should they start? 

If you want to start surfing, first you have to take a lesson. It’s essential to get a good lesson because the ocean is like nothing else. It’s not like a soccer field or a tennis court. It’s moving and it’s going to take you in different directions if you don’t know what you’re doing. So it’s essential to have someone help you understand the different areas of the ocean and help educate you. Make sure you’re good at swimming. And then starting off on a long surfboard, usually like 8 to 9 feet long so that you can balance. And then just have fun. I think giving it a go, and if you like it and you really want to take it serious, then you have to go out every day if not, like, five days a week to really conquer it. 

And then how about for a kid who reads your story and says, “I don’t want to get bitten by a shark or get injured.” What would you say to a kid like that to help them conquer that fear? 

That’s a good question. I think just realizing that shark attacks are so rare and not letting the fear stop you from going for it. There are so many things that could happen. But don't focus on what happened to me. Instead, remember that barely any people have had that experience. It’s almost more dangerous to walk on the sidewalk than it is to go surfing!

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Photo: Aaron Lieber/Liebervision

bethany hamilton surfing
bethany hamilton surfing