This week we have the pleasure of hearing from Chef AJ. In her own words:
“Chef AJ has followed a plant-based diet for over 36 years. She is a chef, culinary instructor, professional speaker, and author. With her comedy background, she has made appearances on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, The Tonight Show with Jay Leno, David Letterman, and more.
In Los Angeles, Chef AJ teaches her popular Intro Class, which includes cooking instruction, nutritional advice, song parodies and flat-out fun. She discusses food addiction and addresses the emotional side of eating. Never content to leave her audience with mere just do it advice, she teaches:
- How to create meals to transform your health
- How to deal with cravings
- How to deal with food addiction
Chef AJ is author of the popular book Unprocessed: How to Achieve Vibrant Health and Your Ideal Weight. The book is half confessional memoir, half delectable recipes. It chronicles her journey from junk-food vegan faced with a diagnosis of pre-cancerous polyps, to learning how to create foods that heal the body. Many of her recipes can be seen on her YouTube cooking show The Chef and the Dietitian.
She holds a Certificate in Plant-Based Nutrition from Cornell University and is a member of the American College of Lifestyle Medicine.”
The Slim Is Simple.org Non-Profit Nutrition Education Effort
Jonathan: Hey everyone Jonathan Bailor back with another bonus, Smarter Science of Slim pod guest. Very excited about today’s show because we have someone who is uniquely qualified to…I didn’t tell her about what I wanted to cover today so I’m excited to hear what she has to say; uniquely qualified to help us make vegetables delicious. She has been just a wonderful presence in the plant-based community for many, many decades, a vibrant personality, incredibly positive, she knows I’m a fan. She’s also a world-class chef. Chef Aj, welcome to the show.
Chef Aj: Thank you Jonathan, it’s a pleasure to be here.
Jonathan: Well Chef Aj, you’ve been cooking and writing your book Unprocessed: How to achieve vibrant health and your ideal weight, was endorsed by many, many people but why I wanted to have you on the show today was a big part of what I’m a fan of, what my research supports and what I know you support as well – is eating a lot of vegetables.
Chef Aj: I do. I even eat vegetables for breakfast. I think it’s the most important way to start your day and a lot of people think, “Vegetables for breakfast, that’s crazy!” But Jonathan everywhere I’ve traveled in the world except for the United States, those countries eat vegetables as part of their breakfast.
Jonathan: Chef Aj I think that’s spot on. Let’s just riff on that during the show. Let’s talk about how we can incorporate more vegetables, deliciously throughout our day, starting with breakfast.
Chef Aj: Well starting with breakfast, I think one of the best ways is to eat them but someone has not eaten vegetables their whole life or very often, they’re not going to necessarily taste as good to them at first, because Americans eat over 92% of their calories from animal products and processed food and less than ten percent of their calories from fruits and vegetables. They eat more like 7% of their calories from vegetables and the vegetable that most Americans is the potato which wouldn’t be so bad except how do Americans eat this potato? – French-fried, sugar, fat and salt, potato chips sugar, fat and salt. They take a whole natural food and it takes about 400 calories a pound and turn it into a fractionated food-like substance that’s about 2500 calories a pound but they’re not eating any of the leafy, green vegetables these nutritional powerhouses.
I think one of the best ways sometimes for some people to start out is with a smoothie. I personally don’t drink smoothies anymore, I think they’re delicious and they’re treats but for people that are eating zero vegetables where breakfast is maybe like a Frappuccino or a Cinnabon, a great way to get people and children that are vegetable-resistant to eat vegetables is to make them into a delicious smoothie. I used the word “green smoothie” because I’m not talking about a smoothie that’s just ton of fruit and a ton of milk. I’m talking about using some non-dairy milk, like some almond milk or some hemp milk and then putting as many greens in as you possibly can. Then if you need to sweeten it up, maybe some low-glycemic fruit like some berries or an apple but start drinking your vegetables if you are not eating any vegetables. Sometimes that just helps people get their foot in the door to realize what the vegetables can do for them on a cellular level so that they’ll be open to then start eating them.
Jonathan: Chef Aj, I could not agree with you more. That’s really how I transitioned into eating dramatically more vegetables was through smoothies. I still eat them for convenience purposes but how can we help people? What are the core…because if you just start throwing stuff in the blender it might not turn out positively? What are some of the key components we should use to have a positive result?
Chef Aj: Right, so the thing Jonathan is not everybody is going to like kale, not everybody is going to like it right away, but spinach for example which is very nutritious is very, very neutral-tasting so you can put a six-ounce bag of baby organic spinach in just about anything and not even detect it so whatever smoothie you’re making, any smoothie recipe you have. Another thing is put a little coco powder in or cacao powder in and a couple of dates; you can mask the taste of the greens. Like I said, spinach you can’t taste anyway, kale is not neutral-tasting it has a bitter edge but if you took a smoothie recipe, say for example 8 ounces or 12 ounces of a non-dairy milk, almond milk is one of my favorites because you can easily make your own by just taking one tablespoon of unsalted, unroasted raw almond butter with a couple of cups of water and make your own almond milk. You don’t need packaging, you don’t need the salt, you don’t need all the preservatives that are in the milk so you can make your own almond milk quite easily. You can do that with other things like hemp seeds as well and then take six ounce bag of spinach and take a frozen fruit like a banana.
Bananas are great because they’re a high-sugar and low-water fruit and when you freeze them when they’re sweet they just make this creamy delicious smoothie. Even if you go to smoothie places like in California we have Jamba Juice and Robeks, every smoothie pretty much has a banana because of what they do for the smoothies, just making it thick and rich and delicious without having to use ice cream or yogurts or sorbets which generally contain a lot of sugar, not to mention dairy. So put this in maybe a tablespoon or two of a good quality coco or cacao powder, a date for sweetener if you need it and you won’t detect a half a pound of spinach being in your smoothie, I promise nobody does. I mean, yes somebody sees you make it, they may think it’s a little weird having a preconceived notion but I’m telling you put a little coco powder and they don’t know it’s in there.
If you don’t want to use chocolate, you could use carob or if people are going to be freaked out about the green color, buy a smoothie cup that’s not see-through and don’t tell them because they taste incredible. I love them too. I mean you know I think they’re really delicious and like I say it’s a great way to get people that are eating no fruits and vegetables to get to start to like the taste of them because not everybody is going to eat their vegetables for breakfast if they haven’t eaten them ever. It’s not the best way to get a person’s foot in the door.
Kale chips are another example, I make my own kale chips with a nut seed topping and I use that machine called the dehydrator and these are delicious. It’s just anyway to get people eating vegetables when they’re eating no vegetables is a good thing in my opinion. Until eventually they can, like what we say, neural adapt get used to the taste, see what their fruits and vegetables are doing for their body and then get them to eat them in a way that, our ancestors ate them and other people in parts of the world eat them which is just eating them whole, eating whole food whole.
Jonathan: In terms of lunch, most people are going to go straight to saying salad and that’s fine but I think we kind of all get that and some of us may or may not like salads. What else can we do if – and again if we’re may be trying to stir away from starch – if we’re trying to stir away from sugar but we’re trying to stir towards vegetables what are some options for lunch maybe beside salad?
Chef Aj: Wow, have another smoothie because I do think when you say stir away from starch, are you considering bean starch too or you or beans’ not starch in your opinion.
Jonathan: I would I would let…beans are fine. If you want to throw beans in there, let’s talk about beans.
Chef Aj: Right because again I know beans are starch I think of beans as one of the things that they lack, because here’s the thing, even if you get people salad, if they’ll eat it they’ll probably not going to be full, if just they eat lettuce or even lettuce with vegetables. One of the things I love to put on my salads are beans because beans are what? – They are starch but they are this wonderful thing called resistant starch where you can eat a lot more of them and absorb a lot less calories from them they do help keep you full. I cook mine myself in a machine called pressure cooker but that really helps with my satiety but the other thing is this delicious dressing which you can make out of some nuts or seeds which will also help with your satiety.
I’m not suggesting that everybody needs to just squeeze a lemon over their salads but the thing about salads is a lot of people think of salads as just lettuce and that’s a mistake because that maybe a component of salad but think outside the lettuce. Think of a salad bar in your own refrigerator and you can actually buy this little things to keep everything fresh where it looks like a mini salad bar in your fridge but put lots of things in your salad, put some nuts and seeds and all kinds of interesting things like maybe water chestnuts or beans on a salad not just lettuce because you’re going to be starving if there’s not something else in there. And like I say I have lots of dressings in my book that are made of things like almond butter and nuts and seeds which will also help with your satisfaction your satiety, they don’t use oil but they’re still delicious dressings.
Avocado, for example is a great thing to have on a salad or as a dressing you can, guacamole for example is great. When I go to a restaurant I don’t want to get a horrible salad dressing made of oil and salt and just all kinds of crap. You can ask for an avocado and mash it up yourself with a squeeze of lime or even use guacamole, so these things will help your satisfaction level. You won’t feel deprived and it will also help you feel full because realize that vegetables as great as they are on a calorie density scale are extremely low in calories, they’re very, very high in nutrients but they only have about a hundred calories a pound when they’re raw and about maybe 200 when they’re cooked. Just having people eat vegetables all day, while it’s going to be great on their health, that’s not going to necessarily fill them up.
Jonathan: Absolutely, absolutely and Chef Aj you hit on a wonderful topic there indirectly when you were talking about the diversity of food stuffs we can put in our salads and that’s you know having things in different containers. One of the challenges I hear people talk about when they talk about vegetables is preparation, storage, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. Can you give us any tips around that?
Chef Aj: Here’s the thing, eating a whole food diet is always going to require a little bit more planning and preparation than say going through the drive-through at McDonalds, and I understand that. However the benefits you’re going to get from one is going to be greater than the health benefits you’re going to get from the other. You do need to get take a day or at least half a day maybe on Sunday – if that’s your day off – to do some preparation. They have this thing called green bags which you can get – at least where I live at a store called Bed, Bath and Beyond but they probably have them at other stores like Target and Walmart which really do have been proven in experiments to keep produce fresher longer for up to I say even three weeks. These are great things to have, but you do have to do your prep in advance because nobody’s going to just probably just be munching on a whole head of Romaine lettuce but you can buy things – at least in LA – already prepared for you, organic produce that’s already washed and chopped.
For example, I happen to live right next door to a store called Trader Joe’s and I can buy my organic kale that’s already chopped, already washed so that when I want to throw it in my pressure cooker for four minutes and steam it in the morning, it takes very little time. Now it’s true that when you buy it already prepared it’s going to be a little bit more expensive, so you have to decide which commodity you have less of—time or money. If money is not an issue, almost everything can be bought, can be purchased prepped. Onions can be purchased chopped. I’ve seen something called mirepoix which is celery, onion and carrot which is the base for most soups which can also be put in salads already chopped kale. You can even go to salad bars and buy the components you want already made.
For example one of the things I like in my salad are raw, shredded beets but that takes some effort I have to wash them, I don’t peel them because they’re organic but I have to scrub them and I have to put through my food processor to shred them but if time was an issue I could just go to the salad bar at Whole Foods and buy these things already prepared. You can buy the components already made if money is not an issue with you, otherwise you are going to have to take some time to and do some chopping with the things you like. Mushrooms come already sliced now – organic mushrooms. We’re living in a world now where if we want to eat this way, it really does make it a lot easier to do that but there is going to be some preparation involved if you’re not going through the drive-through and I understand that, but I think the rewards are so much worth it when you can eat in a healthful manner that actually supports your health instead of destroys it.
Jonathan: Wonderful, wonderful tips there Chef Aj and you touched on another point earlier which I think unlocks the door for delicious vegetables and that’s when you talked about how vegetables or non-starchy vegetables despite being extremely nutrient-dense are calorically poor. We can’t just eat vegetables or we will starve to death. One of the good news there though., is that for example – at least I’ve found some and I’m of course not a chef – but just using like coconut oil to prepare and saute and season vegetables really unlocks a huge amount of flavor and also gives you that level of satiety. Do you have any tips there?
Chef Aj: Well I don’t. Okay so I’m one of these weird people like Dr. Aselsan that don’t eat oil. However, you can still make vegetables taste good without them because there’s this something called – I don’t know if you’ve ever heard of something called waterless cookware but it’s a very high-end cookware that’s why I don’t necessarily put it as my first line of defense to people trying to eat healthier because it is somewhat more expensive, but what’s really cool about it is that not only does it not need oil. The way they sell it actually at county fairs at this places is they actually take a chicken and fry a chicken without any oil and it fries up crisp because there’s something magical about this cookware because it actually cooks with steam.
I don’t know what it is about this cookware but it locks in flavor that even vegetables, say for example the way the reason they sold me on this vegetables, I’ve never been somebody that really cared for cabbage that much I mean I’d eat it if it was on a salad but they steamed the cabbage in this cookware and it was the most delicious thing that I ever tasted. I don’t know what it is in this cookware but you don’t need to put anything in but a couple tablespoons of water and it does it’s the weirdest thing because it either jiggles or whistles when it’s ready but it makes the most incredible tasting vegetables that I’ve ever tasted. Rather than cooking in coconut oil to get the satiety, I would rather actually make a dressing like I say out of almond butter like my “hail the kale dressing” which is the most delicious dressing made with raw almond butter and ginger and garlic and red pepper and put that over my vegetables. Does that make sense? I’d rather not cook; I’d rather use my fat for the dressing than actually to cook it in. For me that’s just a more delicious flavor.
Jonathan: Hmm, I like that. Well it certainly seems like having that diversity of options is wonderful because not everything works for everyone right?
Chef Aj: Yes, but sure. The other thing is I’m really into pressure cooking lately because of its convenience and I’ll tell you it’s just…people always say I can’t eat healthy because I don’t have enough time, I don’t have enough money and with something called the pressure cooker…for instance I can steam my kale every morning in two minutes and vegetables just cook up very, very quickly and everybody’s got two minutes right? We hope they have two minutes. The other thing is, I cook up more than I’m going to eat this is the other thing; don’t just make what you’re going to eat.
I love what you said about vegetables because it’s true because there’s so many different diet styles out there and I haven’t done as much research to every single one has you have, but one of the things I’ve noticed whether it’s Weight Watchers or being in a diet or the paleo diet or any incarnation of any of these diets is the one thing that everyone seems to agree on that is it’s okay to eat is vegetables, is the non-starchy vegetables. Certain groups abstain from fruit or dairy or meat or bread or whatever but I’ve never seen one diet style out there that ever told you not to eat vegetables. As a matter of fact, every diet I’ve looked at throughout the history of the world encourages them and encourages them. It encourages them to be eaten as much as possible almost as if the low calorie, the non-starchy vegetables, the green vegetables is the only thing that everybody can agree on and yet it’s the thing that Americans eat little to no calories from. Especially for people that are trying to lose weight.
There’s a theory called calorie density and it’s interesting because the foods with the lowest calories are also the foods with the highest nutrients. I’ve worked with a lot of times people that are overweight and obese. I run a program in Los Angeles called The Unprocessed 30 Day Challenge and my partner John Pierre and the thing is many – I wouldn’t say many – most of these people that are extremely overweight, they’re starving on a cellular level because they’re getting a lot of calories from poor-nutrient, low-nutrient food. The minute you start feeding people with high-nutrient foods like these vegetables, like kale things like that the receptors that they have in their brains and their stomach – their calorie nutrients stretched receptors – are finally saying “Yes, somebody finally fed me” so when you start feeding people, nutrients, they actually eat less calories from poor quality food.
Vegetables are something you don’t even have to worry about. I’ve never done Weight Watchers but I know people that have, they’re like free foods. Literally you can eat as much as you want and a hundred calories a pound you can never overeat on them and be overweight you just can’t because I figured if most people need 2,000 calorie a day nobody can eat 20 pounds of vegetables. I think I’m doing pretty good eating three pounds a day and that takes a lot of chewing and a lot of doing. They really are, if somebody is dieting, they really are your best friend because they have so much water, so much fiber that they really do fill you up. If you think about a bagel or a Cinnabon or a doughnut, these things have hundreds and hundreds of calories, no nutrients but they don’t fill you up but try eating a pound of kale like I do for breakfast it’s only about a hundred and fifty calories but you’re going to be full because this is a lot of food, it’s high in water and it’s high in fiber and there’s just so many vegetables out there, it’s incredible, the thousands of varieties there are.
I was just in Alaska, I just got back from teaching in Alaska and it’s like daylight there for 20 hours a day and they grow vegetables. I’m not kidding, on my Facebook page I took a picture of this broccoli that was bigger than the dog where I stayed. I always thought, “Well Alaska, you can’t get fruits and vegetables” – not true. I’ve been traveling with my book Unprocessed in the United States and actually through Mexico and Canada too for the last two and a half years. I have been able to find quality food everywhere. Even in food deserts I’ve been able to find colored greens and kale so the foods there, it’s just that not everybody is eating it. If you can just learn to love vegetables you will be so much healthier and so much more satisfied with the other food that you eat. The thing is you haven’t done it in a while you just need to get used to doing it and like you said, I think a smoothie is a great way to get your toe in the door because it’s easy to prepare, it’s delicious, its grab and go, you can almost prepare it the night before. I wouldn’t recommend blending it the night before but you can certainly put the ingredients in the blender the night before and just stick in the blender in the morning and go.
Juicing is okay too. I recommend smoothies over juicing because when you juice you don’t get the pulp and the fiber but anything that can get people to consume more vegetables. The other thing I was going to say is soups are great way to hide vegetables in the food. For example, I make one of my recipe is called nutrient-rich black bean soup and the reason its nutrient-rich is there’s about 12 pounds of vegetables in there that are hidden so you don’t see them because it’s a blended soup that looks and taste like a black bean soup, in a Mexican restaurant but I’m just jamming pack like a pound bok choy and a pound of colored greens in the soup I’m blending it, you don’t see it, you don’t really taste it but it provides nutrition. Hiding food in – I don’t like the word hide but it sounds like your trying to trick someone – but putting it in other food is just a great way to do it. Anytime you have a way to just add vegetables, I just very rarely does a meal go by that I don’t put it over a bed of spinach or over a bed of kale and add some celery or something to it even if it’s a fruit salad there. I can always…think about it, there’s fruit that we think of as vegetables but they’re actually fruit.
For example, cucumber, bell pepper, avocado these are actually fruits but they’re non-sweet so we often think of them as savory and using them as vegetables. These are a great way to get more nutrition into your food. Cucumbers are awesome, they’re again very low in calorie density, high in water and they can be used in a savory recipe, sweet recipe, a smoothie – these are things you can snack on. It doesn’t always have to be carrot sticks. People have this thing where you go on a diet, carrot sticks and celery sticks and those things are fine but that’s not all I snack on. I snack on red bell pepper. My favorite thing, I tell you especially because I travel so much Jonathan, are something called sugar snap peas. I buy them organic at Trader’s Joe, I believe it’s a 10-ounce bag and I can eat three bags. They’re so satisfying because I don’t need to be shoving my face with popcorn which isn’t a horrible thing but these are just they’re so delicious and fresh tasting whether you eat them raw or stirfries or put up on salads but a lot of times people are just eating mindlessly and just want that crunch. I’m telling you sugar snap peas are just so crunchy and so satisfying I probably would say I eat them every single day as a snack and I just really enjoy that.
Think about all the vegetables in there really. We say “shop the perimeter”. You go on my website Eatunprocessed.com I did a shopping tour at Whole Foods for an organization called Chip, The Complete Health Improvement Program. I actually took people through the store but the bottom line is just to “shop the perimeter” that’s the produce section where the fruits and vegetables are there. Eat with color. Eat a wide variety of colorful fruits and vegetables, but really those greens are amazing. I’ve signed all my emails “love and kale” and I didn’t even know about kale until about ten years ago. Now it’s just about one of my very favorite things to eat because I feel so good when I eat it. People moan, “You eat kale for breakfast?” – Yes, because it sets the tone for the day in a way that’s just provides me with so many nutrients and just flooding my cells with all those vitamins and minerals and phytochemicals and antioxidants. I’m really ready to face the day and it gives me much more energy say, than a cup of coffee, a doughnut and a cigarette – which Jack LaLanne, my hero used to say, “You won’t give your dogs, so you shouldn’t be giving yourself.”
Jonathan: Chef Aj I certainly appreciate the passion you come to the vegetable scene with, because as Kermit told us many, many years ago – “It’s not easy being green”. Despite the fact that every dietary practice in the world it seems, seems to celebrate these non-starchy vegetables it still seems to be the thing that is most lacking from almost all dietary practices. Maybe instead of arguing about this versus this versus this, let’s all just figure out how the heck to eat more non-starchy vegetables and we will be healthier thanks to it.
Chef Aj: Absolutely, absolutely. I just want to say Jonathan is just start your day in a nutrient-dense way whatever that means to you, whether its kale or spinach or just some vegetable just add, add, add. I don’t like to take things away from people necessarily right away because then they think of it as dieting or restrictive. But think about it, if we’re eating 7% of our calories from fruits and vegetables we can do better so any chance you get to just add more of these high-nutrient food to your diet, just take it.
Jonathan: I love it. Well folks her name is Chef Aj. She’s all over the web and all over the world. You can learn more about her at Eatunprocessed.com. She also has a lovely book called Unprocessed and Chef Aj in brief, what’s next for you?
Chef Aj: What’s next for me is I produce events called Healthy Taste Of and it’s generally in LA, Healthy Taste of LA. The website is www.healthytasteofla.com, but we put on these conferences right now throughout California places like Sacramento and Ventura County and the Inland Empire. We’ve done actually about four a year and we bring some of the best speakers like Dr. Neil Barnard and Dr. Colin Campbell. They really know about nutrition and talk about it but more than that, we bring chefs like myself and other chefs that either own restaurants or have books where they actually show you how to prepare this food; make it delicious so you get to sample every recipe. You get to hear the nutritional science, the why but you get to see the practical aspect, the how. They’re really fun events, they’re one-day events and they happen many times a year throughout California.
Jonathan: I love it. That was a fun sound at the end
Chef Aj: Sorry about that, I had my phone turned on it’s a Caribbean Little.
Jonathan: I love it. On that note folks again the passionate, wonderful woman we’ve been talking to today is Chef Aj. Learn more about her at eatunprocessed.com, check out her book Unprocessed. Chef Aj, thank you so much for joining us.
Chef Aj: Thank you Jonathan.
Jonathan: Listeners, I hope you enjoyed today’s conversation as much as I did and please remember, this week and every week we after, eat smarter, exercise smarter and live better. Chat with you soon.
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