Real Leaders

Maria Menounos: A New Picture of Health

Maria Menounos says real leaders must be CEOs of their own health — and that means making health care one of your best skill sets.

By Carla Kalogeridis

After having an intracranial tumor removed in 2017 and successfully battling stage 2 pancreatic cancer in 2023 — both of which she attributes in part to an accumulation of poor health choices including not prioritizing her health — Maria Menounos is on a mission. Her message: Leaders must be CEOs of their own health.

Menounos is best known for her work in the entertainment world. She was a TV correspondent and host (Entertainment Tonight, Extra, E!News, Today, Access Hollywood), presenter (Miss Universe pageant, Eurovision Song Contest), actress, bestselling author, entrepreneur, award-winning journalist, and host of the daily podcast Heal Squad.

She describes her earlier life as a whirlwind of 18-hour days, driven determination, high stress, and poor eating. Taking care of herself was not on the priority list — until her body just couldn’t keep pace any longer. Her health traumas led her to what she considers her higher purpose.

For Menounos, it took a brain tumor to open her eyes.

“I knew I had to make changes; I just didn’t know how,” she tells Real Leaders. “I was trapped in an old dream. I wasn’t really happy anymore. I wasn’t fulfilled. But I was doing great.”

At the time, she was hosting E!News. “I was doing like 50 jobs at once,” she recalls. “The first thing I remember waking up from surgery was thinking, ‘What the f— was I doing? I was trying to keep up with people. I don’t need this. This doesn’t define me at all.’”

Menounos describes it as “a rebirth moment.”

“I knew it was my chance to make changes in my life. My body was screaming for help for so long, and I would just shush it, like, ‘Body, be quiet. I’ve got to go back to work.’ My priorities were not in place.” 

Menounos knows her story is not unique. “It’s a general issue with high performers. We must go from illiterate health kindergarteners to being CEOs of our health. Kindergarteners don’t know anything. They just do what their friends are doing. Likewise, we tend to follow what we hear about health without any research, and that’s just not serving us. With all the things happening to our air, our water, our food supply, that’s just not good enough anymore. Unfortunately, there is no health literacy, and we are farming out our health decisions to doctors without really understanding what they’re fully capable of and what their expertise is.”

Growing up, Menounos says she loved being with older people because she wanted to learn from their mistakes and avoid making the same ones. “Similarly, my goal is to affect people with what I’ve learned so they can start implementing little things in their life that will make a big difference down the road. Health trauma is so often an accumulation of poor choices. It’s trauma that takes us to the places where we are forced to learn, but I really want to help people find this message without the trauma.”

She points out that leaders hear all the time about work-life balance, but they don’t realize that the balance comes from taking care of themselves. “All we know how to do is win and succeed,” she says. “From the time we are little kids, we are taught to get good grades so that we can go to a great college, get a huge job, make a lot of money. But nowhere in that equation is anyone talking about your health and getting enough sleep, making sure your circadian rhythm is balanced, your hormones are balanced.”

Health Literacy as a Business Skill

Menounos says that to be a real leader and take the best care of your people, you need to develop health literacy as one of your business skills.

“Health literacy is so important because your people need to know that you care about them,” she says. “It’s not normal to do the job of 10 people just because computers have made it possible. We’re taking in so much, and our brains are exhausted and fried. You’re not going to get the best work out of people. Health is just one of those things that you can’t delegate — not anymore.”

Menounos says real leaders show people that succeeding isn’t the only thing. “What you need is 360-degree succeeding,” she says. “It’s really feeling fulfilled — achieving, of course, and doing something meaningful — but also taking care of yourself. If leaders show their people that it is OK to prioritize their health, and other people do the same, then we have a whole new health care system.”

Menounos recalls being terrified to take a day off from work, terrified to not be at the morning meeting. “Living like this, how are you supposed to fit health care into your life? Your employees will work so much harder for you if you give them the freedom and flexibility to take care of themselves,” she says. “Real leaders don’t say that productivity is the most important thing. This is a new area that leaders need to tackle, and they’re going to benefit from it too.”

Your Thoughts Are Your Body

One important step to being CEO of your health, she says, is to learn to manage your thoughts. “It’s a hard pill to swallow, but our thoughts become things,” she says. “As much as we want to avoid the idea that we are contributing to our health, from everything I’ve studied and everyone I’ve learned from, your brain doesn’t know the difference between perception and reality. So, you can tell the brain anything you want — good or bad — and that has a huge impact on what you’re going to experience. The relationship between mental and physical is one thousand percent real. Changing your thinking can change your reality.”

Menounos does a great deal of work on meditation and the mind-body connection, studying people like Dr. Joe Dispenza and Gabby Bernstein. “I want full mind-body-soul healing. I realize what a massive task and undertaking I’m asking of Dream Big Maria. But I’m learning that things bubble up to the surface to be healed. Sometimes you’re trapped in an old dream, and you don’t even realize it. You’ve got to listen and follow the breadcrumbs.”

The Servant Leader Mistake

Menounos says high achievers often think of themselves as servant leaders, and to them, that means putting themselves at the bottom of the list. “But are you going to be valuable to those people you serve when you go down?” she points out. “What are your employees supposed to do — keep pumping you for information while you’re in your hospital bed?”

She recognizes that coaching your people to take care of themselves can be a delicate conversation. “The message about how to take care of yourself must be applied to the right person at the right time. If you’re young and you want to succeed, you’re going to have to work hard. I’m a believer in working hard. But get your sleep, eat right, wear blue light glasses. Good health is an accumulation of choices.”

Menounos believes her health issues were the result of an accumulation of bad choices, extreme stress, and working in a toxic environment. “Now I’m accumulating so many more good choices, and I’m trying to turn that train back,” she says. “Young leaders today can start out making good choices. I thought it was cool to be a workaholic. What an idiot I was. Now, I prioritize my well-being at all costs. I don’t want another brain tumor to learn this lesson all over again.” 

Where to Start

Maria Menounos’ message for real leaders:

“You cannot lay your care at anyone’s doorstep but your own. You must become an expert who knows what each doctor you deal with is good at and what they’re not good at. It’s hard work to be healthy these days. But you must do this in a way that sets an example for your employees, and then allow them to follow your example.”

Menounos clarifies that she is more critical of the medical system than of doctors themselves. “Doctors are amazing, but most of them are amazing at a few things,” she says. “As Tony Robbins puts it, ‘Doctors can be sincere, but they can be sincerely wrong.’”

She underscores that the smart play is to take charge of your own health plan. “When you get an opinion, you’ve got to get another opinion. Get multiple opinions until you feel good. You need to know your surgeon has done this thousands of times — not one time, not 10 times.”

Menounos admits that asking questions is hard. “People come into doctors’ offices with their Google stuff, and doctors get really abrasive,” she says. “So now you’re fighting egos when all you’re wanting to do is to be an advocate for yourself. You have to ask the right questions: How many of these surgeries have you performed? How long have you been doing this? What possible things could go wrong? Their experience is the No. 1 thing, but you must ask about it in a nice way.

“Nurses and doctors are overstretched,” she continues. “They’re exhausted. By the time they see you, they’ve already dealt with a lot of cranky people who have been mean to them. So, you must find a way to massage egos and communicate and get what you want, which is a good outcome.”

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