Since enrolling in the Natural Gourmet Institute’s Chef’s Training Program (The fightin’ 172nd) I’ve lost 70 lbs. When I tell people that, the first question I hear is always, “So, how did you do it?” They usually don’t like the answer. There was no quick-fix gimmick or diet book. I didn’t join a diet cult; I didn’t avoid carbs like a bedbug-infested movie theater; I didn’t adopt a Flinstones-esque caveman eating protocol; I didn’t get strung out on pills or spend a week seated on the toilet during a “cleanse.” I learned how to eat like a healthy human being, then put it into practice.
Just days before starting culinary school, I sat in my doctor’s office learning the specifics of what a physical wreck I had become. My weight was 287 pounds — down from an all time high of 293 (after curbing my drinking to weekends in preparation for 9 a.m. classes). My total cholesterol was 285, my HDL (good) cholesterol was lower than Obama’s approval rating at a Tea Party rally, and I had a 44-inch waist and an unrecognizably bloated face. Worse still, the words coming out of my doctor’s mouth included “at risk,” “metabolic syndrome,” “heart disease,” “stroke,” and “diabetes.” I swore that I would make the necessary changes to become healthy.
Those changes were shockingly simple once I learned a few key techniques for preparing foods that came from the ground, and not from a box. Just talking with my enthusiastic classmates opened my mind to a new way of eating and living. Within a week, I was eating real food and not a processed science project cleverly engineered to trick my taste buds into believing it was food.
I wasn’t just training for a new career — I was losing weight. And not by eliminating things from my diet, but by adding them: new cooking techniques, exotic vegetables, grains, and legumes that I had never even heard of before. Turns out, cooking is not that difficult or time-consuming. You can prepare perfect quinoa in 12 minutes, chop a dinner salad in five minutes, or have gorgeous blanched asparagus or broccoli in 60 seconds.
Besides enrolling in NGI (my top weight-loss tip), here are some other diet secrets I learned along the way:
THE ONLY GOOD DIET IS NO DIET. Dieters are miserable people who think that they’re depriving themselves of something in order to lose weight or gain health. Instead of giving something up, expose yourself to a variety of new real foods and change up your palate. After eating well, you won’t feel like you’re missing out on the dog food you thought you were enjoying before. After getting used to natural foods, your body will reject fast/junk food in a way that those probiotic poop-aid yogurt commercials can only dream of.
TOSS YOUR OWN SALAD. I eat a salad a day— sometimes at lunch, sometimes before dinner, sometimes as a late afternoon snack. I use a spa ratio (1 part oil to one part acid) for my vinaigrette in place of the traditional 3:1 ratio. It cuts down on fat and calories, and really lets the ingredients speak for themselves.
WHEN COOKING, GIVE YOURSELF AN IRON CHEF CHALLENGE. I love shopping in ethnic markets for spices and produce that I have never worked with before. I’ll read a little about what I had just bought, then head to the kitchen and start improvising. This practice invites variety and excitement—though, unfortunately, never Chairman Kaga — to your table.
CHOOSE QUALITY OVER QUANTITY. Have you ever heard of someone scarfing down multiple burgers made from grass-fed, pasture-raised beef as opposed to the ones on a fast food dollar menu? I believe that people who respect a meal’s ingredients — high-quality, real food— are satiated in a way that those who eat mass-produced, garbage food are not.
FIGHT SUGAR CRAVINGS WITH FRUIT. Sometimes you want something sweet and nothing in the world is going to stop you from getting your fix. Instead of picking up a packaged cake-like thing with an infinite shelf life or a pseudo chocolate bar, I’ll grab a mango, or grapes, or watermelon on my midnight deli run. Despite what anti-carb zealots say about sugars in fruit being awful, I have yet to meet someone who got fat from eating too much fruit.
SAVE RESERVATIONS FOR SPECIAL OCCASIONS. Restaurant food tastes awesome because along with calories, it’s packed with fat and bloat-inducing salt. If you’re cooking for yourself and your family, you aren’t going to use anywhere near the same amounts of fat and salt you’d get outside the home. The average American dines out five times a week. Do you want to be anything like the average overweight American? Save your restaurant trips for a meal that you know is going to be great. When I ate at restaurants all the time, I never looked forward to it; it was just eating. Now I take great pleasure in ordering and enjoying a meal that I can’t or won’t make at home.
LIVE A LITTLE. Since our heaviest weights, my wife and I together have lost approximately one-and-a-half Olsen twins (about 170lbs) — and in all honesty, it wasn’t that hard. Why not? Because though we watched what we ate, if we really wanted the tempura poached egg and grits at Dirt Candy or the mushroom lasagna at Gramercy Tavern, we enjoyed them, following John Waters’ sage dietary advice: “Eat healthily during the week and eat irresponsibly on Saturdays.”
Two years later and I feel like a different person — or more accurately, the person I was before wearing a fat suit. I lowered my cholesterol to a healthy 160, my blood pressure is a perfectly normal 110/70, and I fit into a size 34 jeans. But my favorite accomplishment? My doctor gave me a high-five at my last check-up.