Rocco DiSpirito used to be a fat guy.
He was a chef at a three-star New York City restaurant – one who “ate too much of his own merchandise,” he recalls, ticking off dishes like foie gras and truffles and bluefin tuna loaded with belly fat. “I used to research which butter had the highest butter fat content. So my life was about flavor, not about health and flavor. And then that changed completely – to a life focused on proving that healthy and flavor are not mutually exclusive.”
In his new book “The Pound a Day Diet,” DiSpirito – a James Beard Award-winning chef and host of Food Network’s “Restaurant Divided” – describes his low-carb Mediterranean-style diet. This, he says, is the plan that helped him drop from nearly 230 pounds to 180-some, with just 10 percent body fat. It turned him into a fit and trim triathlete and “melted the lard off his butt.” That's thanks to an emphasis on lean proteins and healthy fats, as well as low-density options that fill you up for relatively few calories.
In an interview with U.S. News, DiSpirito opened up about what he describes as his turbocharged weight loss program. His responses have been edited.
During the first month, dieters are allowed just 850 calories on weekdays and 1,200 on weekends. Why is calorie restriction important, and how do you assure that folks get enough nutrients?
The easiest way to lose weight is to consume less calories than you burn. Your basal metabolic rate is the rate at which you burn calories at rest without doing any extra workout – so you want it to be as high as possible. My BMR is 2,700 a day, because I have a lot of lean muscle mass, and that’s the apparatus in your body that burns calories.
I reduce the calories as low as possible, but at the same time provide enough fill power so people don’t feel hungry or deprived. Everyone knows someone who can stretch a dollar. Well, I can do that with a calorie. I can stretch a calorie unit like nobody’s business, by making food with low-calorie-density ingredients – like vegetables and non-starchy carbs.
[Read: What is the 'Best Diet' for You?]
What’s the benefit to accelerated weight loss?
Rapid results produce high motivation, and there’s research that suggests it’s more beneficial over the long term than slow weight loss. But it’s rapid and safe weight loss – not weight loss at any cost. I make sure those 850 calories are packed with macronutrients; there are people who eat 4,000 calories a day and don’t get that amount of nutrition.
Some people say eating healthy is too expensive. What’s your counterargument?
What does it cost a family when their primary income earner dies 20 years too young due to Type 2 diabetes? I think eating healthy itself is less expensive, but when you add the costs of being unhealthy, there’s no argument. I don’t understand how buying a head of broccoli and a chicken, and roasting and steaming it yourself, could ever be more expensive than enough hot pockets to get you the same nutrition. I wish myth busters would take on that myth. I think a lot of people like to hang onto that excuse – that healthy is expensive.
What’s your go-to breakfast?
Smoothies. You can make them very easily, and they can last for a few days. I put lots of fiber, cocoa powder and some protein powder in mine. You can also add a little monk fruit or guo extract, which is calorie-free and tastes great.
Egg whites are another go-to: Egg whites and diced chicken, egg whites and some peppers, egg whites and anything. You can add low-density foods like broccoli, peppers, tomatoes and onions, with pico de gallo and Tabasco sauce.
What’s your gym routine like?
A lot of spinning and a lot of steps. I wear a FitBit bracelet, and I try to reach at least 10,000 steps every day. In the summer, I cycle constantly – hundreds of miles a week.
You really don’t have to exercise to lose weight, though. If you took exercise alone and nutrition alone, nutrition would be more effective. If you combine them, it’s an incredibly powerful force. It’s 1 + 1 = 3. In the fat-burning world, low-intensity exercise like brisk walking, errands, walking your dog and taking the stairs are really good. Any aerobic exercise when you can still talk and breathe normally will burn fat.
What’s your advice to people just embarking on a weight-loss journey?
I’m a former fat guy with a crooked back and flat feet who worked in a restaurant in New York, surrounded by and indulging in all the finer things in life. And I went from that to an ironman in a year. If I can do it, anybody can do it.
And something more practical: Get rid of sugar. It’s more poisonous than heroin. If refined sugar were discovered today, it would be categorized as a narcotic like cocaine and heroin; it’s as addictive and kills millions more people than all drug overdoses combined. Think about it. Obesity-related illnesses kill more people than everything else combined. And the No. 1 causes of obesity are sugar, fat and salt.
[Read: Diet Success Stories.]
And finally, you’re quite passionate about the social changes a proper diet can bring.
Our country is suffering economically, and a big reason for that is the diminished productivity of our work force – which is largely coming from the poor health we’re in. If you look at the cost of obesity, airlines spend millions of dollars on gallons of extra fuel every year, simply because of the law of physics: The more weight you have, the more fuel it takes to move it. The costs to our society of obesity are enormous and unsustainable.
There are very few things we’re personally empowered to change with our everyday choices. And the one thing we can change is how our personal health affects our economy. It’s amazing what we can do by making healthy choices every day, and we should utilize and exploit that to the fullest. An apple a day can literally change the world.