I’m bone tired this morning but somehow I have no taste for my usual morning cup of coffee. I just came off three days of cooking with, eating with and best of all talking with and learning from my buddy Chef Aj. If you are not familiar with Chef Aj, she is a Los Angeles based Vegan chef, culinary instructor, author, speaker, and comedian. Her book Unprocessed has the tastiest plant-based recipes on the planet. Check out a few recipes here, here and here.
For the past five years, she has run a successful lifestyle program called The Unprocessed 30-day Challenge with celebrity fitness and Vegan nutritional guru John Peirre. During the challenge the participants follow a whole food, plant-based diet free of processed food in general and all sugar, oil and salt (aka SOS Free).
This past Saturday Chef Aj was speaking at Cleveland’s VegFest. We arranged in advance for her to stay at my house and host a cooking demo the following day. No one in their right mind would turn down that offer!
When I saw Aj for the first time this weekend I was totally astonished at her transformation. The first time she came to visit was a year and a half ago, and while she wasn’t thin, I’d say she was at a normal weight, eating a healthy plant-based diet. But today, she’s a skinny bitch.
It was a whirlwind weekend of preparing vast amounts of samples (almost 1000) for VegFest and the cooking demo. I cannot believe how hard Aj works! And the entire time she was working I was plugging her for information about how she had lost those stubborn and unwanted pounds. Like me, Chef Aj is not shy about talking about being a food addict, a compulsive over eater and emotional eater and that makes us some kind of soul sisters.
But, before I go into more details, I want to say two things:
(1) Please do not take from this blog posting that I believe that there is some magical power in being “thin” or an overemphasis on a number on the scale. If you feel that you are eating a healthy plant based diet and are happy with how you feel and look, then by all means, don’t change a thing! Chef Aj’s main motivation to lose weight was actually the avoidance of painful and expensive knee surgery.
(2) Also know that every one of us is very different and what works for Chef Aj may or may not be workable for you in your life or at this part of your journey. Some things will resonate with you, some will not. My goal is to simply share everything that I have learned this weekend from Aj in the hopes that it will stick with me on a deep level and also that it may spark something inside of you that helps you along this path.
Chef Aj is simply the embodiment of a true Nutritarian at this time in her life. It took her a LONG time to get there and a lot of hard work on herself. I don’t think I really ever understood the laser focus and extreme dedication that it would take to earn yourself that label until I witnessed Aj’s diet this weekend. Even with all of my writing about it and blogging about it, it was a theory to me and not a practice. Well, I finally witnessed it in practice and here is what I saw:
Chef Aj eats steamed greens (kale mostly, but you could rotate collards, beet greens, swiss chard, or any green vegetable, etc.) for breakfast, with a little vinegar. She prepares them in an electric pressure cooker made by the Instant Pot company. Aj also does not start eating in the morning until she is truly hungry. And the reality is, that even if you love kale, you are not going to start eating it until your hunger is damn real.
After the steamed greens, if Aj is still hungry, she will eat whole fruit (not a smoothie). She says it’s not what she eats, but when and why she eats that has really made all the difference. She totally stopped eating unless she is truly hungry.
Lunch is a huge salad with lettuce, shredded carrots, shredded cabbage, beets, lots of beans and a low fat dressing made with tahini. Chef Aj ate the salad over the course of many hours, probably because we were under a time crunch preparing all of the samples for the VegFest and cooking demo. By eating the cooked greens first thing in the morning and then the raw vegetables next, she gets in her pound of cooked greens, pound of raw greens (or almost that much, a la Fuhrman) plus a whole lotta beans before she eats anything else for the day. It floods her system with nutrients and seriously curbs overeating later in the day (try it–I have and it works).
Snack was the leftover greens from the morning.
Dinner happened to be a green salad, a corn salad and a mushroom and bean chili served over a potato, but she was too full after the two salads to eat much of the chili and potato.
No dessert. None. Nada.
Chef Aj says that smoothies are a treat, not a regular meal replacement. Aj believes that smoothies, even “green” ones are great for people who are underweight or elderly, because they are highly caloric and can cause weight gain. But for those of us with a few to lose, smoothies can only be seen as a treat. Granted, on a good, better, best scale, they are at least good when it comes to food choices, they just shouldn’t be a regular thing for the overweight that wish to lose weight.
I talked with Chef Aj about what had changed for her over the past few years to create such a radical transformation. I know that she has cut all flour out of her diet except oat flour that she grinds herself to make these muffins, which she admits to only baking occasionally. She does not touch any of her plant-indulgent desserts, but continues to prepare them daily and fully believes that they are the way to people’s hearts and stomachs when it comes to transitioning to a plant-based diet.
Aj also really limits her grains and prefers to eat potatoes pretty much daily. She is a big fan of sweet potatoes and Yukon Gold. She will eat brown rice, but totally avoids all grains with gluten (wheat, barley, rye and oats with gluten). Gluten free whole grains include quinoa, brown rice, corn, millet, teff, amaranth, and gluten free oats. She doesn’t eats them processed into a flour (think rice noodles), but always in their whole form. The reason Aj avoids all grains is because they are a trigger food for her, meaning that she will overeat them just like she used to nuts. You have to really know yourself and know which foods you can have a few bites of and then not obsess about. If you can eat whole grains (and I don’t mean slices of bread, but rather cooked whole grains) in small amounts and walk away, then they are not a problem for you.
Aj also happens to be allergic to soy, so any foods with tofu are off limits to her anyway.
Aj says that there is something about eating the greens first thing in the morning that totally changed the game for her. She believes that it floods our bodies with nutrients and makes it so much easier to make better food choices throughout the rest of the day. Whether it’s physical or psychological, I’m sure she doesn’t care, because the effect is the effect no matter what. The story of how she discovered this magic is actually quite interesting, but you’ll have to get her upcoming video to find out.
Aj will pre-eat when she goes out to a restaurant or pot-luck, even when she knows that all of the food at the pot luck is going to be plant-based. That’s means that she will eat a bowl of steamed greens to prevent overeating at the restaurant or party. When she’s at a pot-luck, she doesn’t try to taste all of the dishes that are on the table, but rather asks around which are the winners and eats only those.
Variety is the kiss of death to those of us with food addictions. It’s so much easier for us to overeat when food and flavors keep changing and are so exciting. Keep it simple most of the time. Stick to the same rotation of dishes that you like, but don’t try to prepare new and exciting dishes all of the time. It’s one thing when you are eating the delicious food that other people have prepared for you, but inside your own home on a day to day basis, it’s better to just stick to the basics.
Aj has also invested a trememdous amount of her time and energy dealing with her propensity for emotional eating and overeating. It really has been a journey, starting at TrueNorth and involving lots of learning and trial and error. She has developed so many tips and techniques that help her along the way–my favorite being that if she needs to taste something sweet while preparing a dessert for a client or a demonstration, she immediately drinks water or takes a bite of something savory to wipe that sweet taste away from her consciousness a.s.a.p., otherwise the obsession with eating more sweets takes over.
Best quote of the weekend? “If you’re not hungry enough to eat kale, you’re not hungry.”
It’s my new mantra.
To find Chef Aj, go to eatunprocessed or meet her in person this August 16-24, 2013 or December 1, 2013-January 2, 2014 at TrueNorth Health Center in Santa Rosa California. She will also be appearing at Healthy Taste of the South Bay on June 23, 2013 with Dr. Terry Mason of Forks over Knives and on November 2-3, 2013 with Dr. Neal Barnard.
Chef Aj has generously offered to give away three signed copies of her book Unprocessed. To enter to win one copy (U.S. residents only please, sorry!) please leave a comment answering the following questions:
What about Aj’s tips or story resonated the most with you? What change in your life are you considering making after reading this blog posting?
Contest will close on Thursday, June 6th at 9 am EST. Three winners will be selected at random.