Because Tom Hopper always looks to be in peak physical condition, it can be surprising to hear that he has struggled with disordered eating and his health - which is precisely why he wants to speak up about those issues.
"I think the thing for me is it's just been quite a long journey," Hopper, 36, tells PEOPLE. "The reason I've chosen to talk about it now is because I'm at a point in my life where I feel my own health is in a really good place, mentally and physically."
The Umbrella Academy and Game of Thrones actor says for years he's been trying to figure out why he still felt terrible while following various fitness and diet plans. It was only after starting an individualized program for gut health that he began to recover from years of disordered eating.
"I'm quite extremist in a lot of things that I do. If I do it, I do the whole hog, and that goes to the damaging things I used to do, like smoke 20 [cigarettes] a day, easy. I know. Shock! Horror! In my early-to mid-20s, I was smoking. I would eat fast food most days. An average McDonald's trip would be a Big Mac meal, with a large strawberry shake. And then two cheeseburgers on the side. I would eat 12 Krispy Kreme donuts in one sitting, no problem at all. I would eat a large Domino's pizza, two for Tuesdays."
At 6' 5," Hopper still appeared to be relatively fit, despite the damage he was doing internally.
"On the outside, I looked like a guy who went to the gym. I wasn't particularly lean or anything, but my body was buffering, whether it was my metabolism or because of my youth," he recalls. "But inside I was a mess. I was having these headaches all the time, and I would get sick all the time."
Hopper is not a paid spokesperson for the company, but says that time, education and utilizing the science-based recommendations provided by a program called Viome have taught him why he never felt well, despite appearances.
"I realize now that inflammation in my body was causing all sorts of imbalances, and that's the way that I lived for a long time in terms of food," he says.
The British star said that following diets and fitness programs required for certain acting roles often made him feel awful too.
"It was always about just doing things to lose body fat, and just doing things to aesthetically look a certain way," says Hopper. "I didn't really think health was a factor. I was on this crazy roller coaster of just trying to figure out how to get low body fat. That's all I cared about."
Hopper says although he looked the part, he was miserable.
"I would cut out all the carbs, I would just eat chicken and broccoli, because that's what they told me to eat. And to be fair, if you saw me. You're like, 'Oh, fit, young, healthy guy, lean or whatever,' but I would still be getting headaches, I still had low energy, or my sex drive would be low. It just didn't feel right for my age. It always feels like such a miserable thing to get in shape ... And I remember just thinking that 'There has to be another way.' It can't be this miserable to get in shape, and then at the same time feel good."
So Hopper took a new approach. "We got a kit sent to us by the Viome, and you send in a stool sample. What I always say now, is people need to start giving a sh-- about gut health," he says with a laugh. "So you give a s--- and you get sent all these recommendations for foods to avoid, to minimize, enjoy, and then a list of superfoods. It will also give you a breakdown of your overall gut health, what needs improvement, what's in balance, and what's really good. And based on those scores, it will give you the foods to improve those scores. Or recommend to get rid of certain foods that are causing those problems."
Hopper says that getting those results and following the recommended food lists have helped him, his wife Laura and their two children feel healthy.
"There was this immediate effect once we started taking out 'avoid' foods," he says. "I started losing body fat, maintaining muscle, and then feeling great. My energy levels, everything was just boom, I felt great. And I was like, 'Oh my God, this is just what balance feels like.' "
Hopper knows that he is speaking from his own experience, as well as his family's, but thinks everyone could benefit from learning more about their guts. "I think [improved gut health] could be the answer for so many people and it could help millions of people," he says.
In Hopper's words, you just "have to give a sh--."