My Chat with Chef AJ

AJ and Benji I was honored to be Chef AJ’s special guest during her weekly teleclass on August 28, 2014!

As you know, Chef AJ is the secret behind some of our very favorite Whole-Food Plant-Based dishes, like her fabulous Red Lentil Chili, Split Pea Soup, Faux Parm, and many delicious no-sugar-added desserts!

Listen to the entire teleclass below as we talk about the Whole-Food Plant-Based lifestyle and my journey to better health and a slimmer waistline!

Instant Pot – Special Discount Code!

The Instant Pot IP-DUO60

The Instant Pot IP-DUO60

You may have heard me mention in my recent publicity how some of our favorite meals to make in bulk and feed off of for several days are made in our Instant Pot. I’m thrilled to announce that the Instant Pot folks have offered me my own discount code to pass along to you! More on that in a second.

If you aren’t familiar with Instant Pot, allow me to give you the briefing – this has quickly become one of our very favorite kitchen appliances. No need for a long, drawn-out cook time for our favorite soups, stews, chilis, dry beans, lentils etc. – with this amazing creation, we’re now able to cook up recipes that would take literally hours in minutes – less than 10 minutes, to be exact!

Easy-to-read display on the Instant Pot

Easy-to-read display on the Instant Pot

When we decide that it’s time for a batch of Chef AJ’s delicious Red Lentil Chili, for example, or her great Split Pea soup, it’s a matter of buying the ingredients, cutting/prepping (the mise en place, if you will!), and dumping everything in. 6 minutes later, it’s done. Seriously!

It’s not just complicated recipes that are great for the Instant Pot, either – we’ve done baked potatoes in minutes, rice, and one of my personal favorites that I cook up multiple times a week – steamed veggies. Broccoli, cauliflower, spinach, kale, collards, you name it – from frozen (or fresh) to steamed just the way I like it in no more than a couple minutes.

If the idea of a pressure cooker scares you off because you envision the old days where your mom had one of those cooktop pressure cookers, where the top could blow off and take your eye out – rest assured that’s not the case with the Instant Pot. There are about a million* safety features that will make sure nothing goes wrong. From an overheating sensor that turns the heat off to a locking mechanism that prevents opening the lid until the pressure has come down – you are not going to get hurt using this safe, tabletop electric pressure cooker. *(Safety features may not actually number a million.)

Friends, hurry over to the Instant Pot website and take advantage of this great savings offer that they are offering to our friends – use the code “BENJI” at checkout, and save $45 off of any purchase above $151! Personally, we went for the IP-DUO model, which has 7 features in it, including all I mentioned above, in addition to things like sauteeing, yogurt (and there are some great vegan yogurt recipes, by the way!), rice cooker, even a slow cooker!

Coming soon, some recipes and photos of our favorite recipes that we make all the time in our Instant Pot. Enjoy!

Chef AJ’s Faux Parmesan Recipe – Delicious On Everything

One of the staples of our Whole-Food Plant-Based Diet that we’ve just discovered in the last several months is Chef AJ’s Faux Parm. We use this stuff on EVERYTHING – vegetables, chili, pasta, stews, soups – you name it. Anything that would have been made better with parmesan when we were eating the S.A.D. (Standard American Diet) is made even better with this fantastic salty-but-contains-no-salt mixture. By the way, be sure to pick up Chef AJ’s book Unprocessed for more fantastic recipes just like this one!

The ingredients for the faux parm couldn’t be more simple – there’s only three: Almonds, Nutritional Yeast and salt-free seasoning. Personally, I took AJ’s suggestion and ordered Benson’s Gourmet Seasonings “Table Tasty” salt substitute. It’s made completely of herbs and spices, contains no MSG, preservatives, potassium chloride or sodium. It is DELICIOUS.

Chef AJ Faux Parmesan Recipe

Chef AJ’s Faux Parmesan Recipe:

1 Cup Almonds (I prefer them blanched, slivered and I keep them in the fridge, they seem to stay more fresh)
1/2 Cup Nutritional Yeast (you can find this in health food stores, Whole Foods, many groceries and online)
1.5-2 TB Benson’s Table Tasty Salt Substitute

I put them through the food processor until the consistency is fine (sometimes I leave it a little more coarse for texture) – it’s about 8-10 seconds in the processor.

That’s it! You’re left with a great seasoning/flavor enhancer to use on any dish you’d like!

Chef AJ Faux Parmesan Recipe

A Whirlwind Week – And It’s Only Tuesday!

Front page of CNN Health 7/28/14

Front page of CNN Health 7/28/14

Wow! What a couple of days! I’m so pleased that Sara Cheshire at asked if she could write my story on CNN’s health section. Apparently they feature a weight-loss success story every Monday and mine was one of the iReports chosen to have a reporter assigned and run on proper. I just learned that they were going to run it the week before last, Ms. Cheshire and I were in touch throughout the last 10 days, and it ran yesterday. I really thought the piece came out well. I was so pleased that some of the leading figures in the Plant-Based movement chose to share it with their social media audiences, including Dr. McDougall, Forks Over Knives, Rich Roll, Jeff Novick, Eco-Vegan Gal and many, many more. The night ended with a surprise story based on the CNN one (but with some original content) on the Daily Mail website.

Front page of the Cleveland Fox affiliate

Front page of the Cleveland Fox affiliate

Just in the last 36 hours, our facebook group has grown from about 60 fans to over 1,600, I’ve received about 200 friend requests from total strangers, and answered questions from probably about 50 folks about where to start their own journeys. Inspirational and humbling!

As if that wasn’t enough (and it was, trust me!), I was pleased to be invited in-studio to appear on HLN’s midday program HLN Now. You can watch the video of my conversation with host Lynn Berry below.

1 Year, 100 Pounds Lost

Some lovely 'before' shots. These are roughly 115-130 lbs more than the 'after' photo.

Some lovely ‘before’ shots. These are roughly 115-130 lbs more than the ‘after’ photo…

Just over a month ago, I reached a pretty big goal that I had set: LOSING 100 POUNDS!  I hadn’t been actively trying to do so in one year’s time, but as the pounds started to add up, and the calendar started approaching one year, it suddenly became achievable. Now, I do have a confession to make. I missed it by a day. Technically, it was 366 days – but who’s counting, really? I was trying to figure out if there was some leap-year technicality I could make work, but what can you do…

So now that I’m minus 100 (and as of this writing, it’s actually 107 lbs in 13 months), and nearly 130 lbs from my heaviest, I wanted to take this opportunity to answer some questions that I’m getting more and more as friends & relatives are really starting to take notice. These questions range from the very common for those eating a whole-food, plant-based diet to some I didn’t expect. In any event, in no particular order:

Me in May 2014 in the largest pair of jeans I ever wore.

Me in May 2014 in the largest pair of jeans I ever wore.

Did you have “the surgery” (bariatric weight loss surgery or lap-band)?
No. That’s not something that I even considered. It may be right for some, but it wasn’t for me. I lost the weight by changing to a whole-food, plant-based lifestyle, combined with regular exercise (swimming for me).

So what do you eat?
I eat a Whole-Food Plant-Based diet with little to no added S.O.S. (Salt, Oil or Sugar). That means the four basic food groups as defined on the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine “Power Plate” of Fruits, Vegetables, Legumes and Grains, along with nuts and seeds. I consume zero animal products of any type, and I severely limit the amount of processed foods I eat, along with the aforementioned Salt, Oil and Sugar. That doesn’t mean that I don’t have a rare treat that’s processed food, or the occasional meal out of the house that was prepared with oil, but I limit those as much as I can. When I do consume Salt, Oil or Sugar, they’re used as flavorings, and not main food sources.

So, no animal products?

Not even (fish, chicken, farm-raised meat, eggs)?
No. If it had a mother or a face or came from something that did, I don’t eat it.

The PCRM "Power Plate"

The PCRM “Power Plate”

So how does this whole thing work?
The long answer very short is that I’m eating foods that are low in calorie density (whole food plant foods) instead of processed, high-fat foods. Our stomachs have stretch receptors that tell us when we’re full. We will continue to eat until those stretch receptors tell us we’re done. If I eat 200 calories of broccoli instead of 200 calories of olive oil, or a processed food, I am full much sooner. If I’m eating celery, I can eat 1425 grams (that’s nearly 3.5 lbs of celery), but if I’m consuming canola oil, my 200 calories are done with only 23 grams (that’s only 1.5 tablespoons!) Which is going to most likely trigger those stretch receptors first – 3.5 lbs of celery? Or a tablespoon and a half of oil (or any other food high in calorie density?) The best explanation of this concept is Dr. Douglas Lisle’s presentation How To Lose Weight Without Losing Your Mind. It’s the most informative 75 minutes you’ll ever spend. If you’d rather read it than watch it (I’d watch it), read this.

So what improvements have you seen after a year of eating this way?
Too many to count! I feel ‘clean’ – eating clean puts more of a bounce in your step. The lack of oil and sugar makes me feel much less sluggish and hazy (it’s hard to put into words, and you’ve never experienced it until you’ve gotten rid of them). I sleep much better – like a rock, in fact. I think more clearly. I’m told I have more color and that I look ‘healthier’. My bathroom ‘habits’ are vastly improved, and things ‘move along’ much more quickly. All prior digestive difficulties are completely gone. Oh, and I have a new body, too.

Ok, so where do you get your protein?
“The protein available in a diet of whole grains, legumes, fruit and beans, and red, yellow and green vegetables is adequate to nourish even professional champion athletes such as those who compete in the iron man races, professional football, mixed marshal arts, track and field.” (Courtesy Dr. Caldwell Esselstyn’s site.)

Calcium SourcesWhat about calcium? How are you getting enough calcium without consuming dairy products?
“All minerals, including calcium, come originally from the ground and enter animals through plants. Which means plants are loaded with calcium, iron, zinc, copper, etc., and the more plants you eat the more minerals you acquire. The relationship between people and plants works so well that there has never been a case of dietary calcium deficiency ever reported. To put it even more clearly: all-plant diets are sufficient to meet the needs of growing children and adults (infants need breast milk). Calcium pills have a few adverse effects like constipation and inhibition of iron absorption. The most serious mistake a person can make is to believe cow’s milk is a “good” and necessary source of calcium. Heart disease, cancer, type-2 diabetes, arthritis, and infectious disease are only a few of the common consequences of drinking milk from other animal species.” (Courtesy Dr. John McDougall’s site.) Long answer short – we don’t need nearly as much calcium as the dairy industry wants us to believe, and there is just as much (and often more, depending on the plant) calcium in plants than in products derived from baby cow growth juice.

Are you sure we don’t need dairy?
Look at this way. What is the milk that we drink? It’s the growth formula for a cow. We’re talking about baby cow growth juice – that was designed by nature to take a 75 lb. calf and grow it into a 750 lb. cow as soon as possible. Why would we want to consume that? Are we trying to gain 10 times our mass in a few weeks? Also – why would we find it necessary to be the only species on the planet to drink another animal’s milk? Even adult cows don’t drink cow’s milk – why would we? The only people who are insisting that you consume dairy products is…the dairy industry! They’ve got some serious skin (or milk) in the game, wouldn’t you say? Every nutrient that’s in milk is available in a plant food without the harmful toxicity of dairy.

What about your Omega-3 Fatty Acids? Where do you get those if you won’t eat fish or fish oil supplements?
“There are numerous ways to get essential omega-3 fatty acids without subjecting yourself to the potential risks of fish oils — which, according to the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, are highly unstable molecules that can break down and release dangerous, disease causing free radicals. People are under the false assumption that taking a fish oil supplement will negate the effects of all the cheese, meat, and processed foods they throw down their throats. But fish oil is no panacea. It can actually raise total and LDL cholesterol levels, increases your chance of a hemorrhagic stroke, and suppresses the immune system.” (Answer courtesy Omega-3 fatty acids can be found in a variety of plant-based foods, including ground flaxseed meal, walnuts, soybeans, and green leafy vegetables.

The Dirt on B12, Courtesy Vegans of Instagram

The Dirt on B12, Courtesy Vegans of Instagram

What about B12?
“If you follow a whole-food, plant-based diet, you do indeed need to be aware of your vitamin B12 intake. This vitamin is created from microorganisms in the soil, which animals consume, thereby making it part of their bodies and providing it to people who consume their flesh. However, it is very easy to find vitamin B12 in non-animal-based sources. Nutritional yeast and fortified plant-based milks contain ample vitamin B12 or you can take a supplement or chew some B12-fortified gum. We require 5-10 micrograms per day. This simple consideration will allow you to prevent deficiency, which does not typically show up in blood tests until it is too late.” (Courtesy Plant-Based Dietician Julieanna Hever on Forks Over Knives website.)

What foods do you miss?
I don’t miss meat, poultry or eggs at all. I do miss cheese occasionally, but there are plenty of vegan versions of any type of food that I might want. There are very tasty burgers, sausages, fake cheeses, pizzas, holiday roasts – anything I might have a craving for. Fortunately, I just don’t have them very often, so it’s not an issue (and those faux foods are not healthy even though they are plant-based).

What do you eat for breakfast?
I’ll be honest with you – I don’t eat breakfast. I never have. I don’t get up hungry, and although I understand why so many find it necessary to eat (so that you don’t pig out later), I just don’t have a need for it. I eat when I get hungry, typically in the early afternoon. For ‘normal’ people who eat breakfast, there are a ton of healthy plant-based options, like oats, pancakes, waffles, fresh fruit, silk, almond or coconut-based yogurts, tofu scrambles, as well as a plethora of unhealthy vegan ‘junk’ food (sausages, etc.)

I’m not a coffee drinker. I don’t consume caffeine at all. My wife, Claire, who still drinks coffee occasionally (but has really taken to herbal coffee as well) prefers soy or almond milk to replace the dairy.

What do you drink?
Water, as much as possible, or diluted Honest Ade. It is lightly sweetened with cane sugar, which isn’t great, but I never drink more than a half bottle at one sitting (50 calories). It’s not ideal, but it’s better than anything with the chemicals or fake sweeteners in it (it’s just water, fruit juice and sugar). If I have a glass that’s 1/3 Honest Ade, all-natural lemonade or limeade and 2/3 water, I’m happy. I like just enough flavor to…flavor it, nothing more. Once in a blue moon I’ll have enjoy a sweet tea at a restaurant as a treat.

How can you cook without oil?
Pretty easily, actually. Onions sauté up great in vegetable broth (great demo here from Chef Del Sroufe), with a touch of water or even red wine. There are lots of alternatives for baking, depending on the recipe.

What about the taste of the food? Isn’t it bland?
Surprisingly, not in the slightest! Here’s what’s fascinating – after a few weeks of no oil, little to no sugar, low to no salt, and no animal products, your palate completely resets. Now, anything with oil just tastes coated in a slippery mess. It’s gross! Same with sugar – anything sweetened with heaps of additional sugar is just inedible now, whereas fruits are usually as sweet as I can handle. Eating a date or a banana (or something sweetened with fruit) tastes as good as the most luscious dessert that I might have eaten before. Same with salt – you just don’t miss it, especially if your food has been flavored well with herbs and spices (and bitter, such as lemon, is a surprisingly good replacement for salt, since the bitter and the salty parts of the taste buds are right next to each other. It’s easy to fool your tongue!) There are some great no-sodium salt alternatives out there, my new favorite being Benson’s Gourmet Seasonings (thanks to Chef AJ)! lists thousands of veg-friendly restaurants, shops and stores worldwide. lists thousands of veg-friendly restaurants, shops and stores worldwide.

What about eating out and traveling? What do you do?
Eating out and traveling just takes a little forethought. There is a wonderful community of other vegans and vegetarians who document the vegan, vegetarian and veg-friendly restaurants all over the world called HappyCow. Although I prefer to patronize establishments that make options available to me, we’ve been successful eating out and ordering meals all over the country quite easily. Fortunately, with the vegan lifestyle becoming more and more prominent, “regular” restaurants always have a couple of vegan options on the menu, and often mark them as such. We have even found a local pizza place here in Atlanta that recently added two vegan pizzas to their permanent menu with homemade ‘cheese’ and it’s one of the best pizzas we have ever eaten. Often side dishes are already vegan-friendly or can be made so easily. And we’ve been surprised just how accommodating chefs will be – just by telling your server that you’re vegan, you’re often presented with a list of options, and sometimes the chef will just come out and come up with a delicious and nutritious meal! We always travel with snacks for the room, so we can bring or buy our favorite snacks wherever we are (nuts, hummus, cucumber, fruit, etc.) This lifestyle hasn’t slowed down our enjoyment of traveling or eating out a bit!

I couldn’t afford to eat like that. Whole Foods is expensive!
Whole Foods is expensive, no question. And it is one of our favorite places to go, but every grocery chain from ritzy to budget has produce – and they all have some organic options, too. Fruits, Vegetables, Legumes, Grains, Nuts & Seeds are NOT expensive. Think about some staple foods – potatoes, rice, grains, veggies, beans (canned or dry in bulk) – these are very, very inexpensive foods. Dollar for dollar, we are saving money both in the grocery and in restaurants eating this way. When you’re not buying meat at several dollars a pound, your food dollar goes much much further!

Are you cooking?
More than ever! We’re cooking vegetables and starches all the time, such as potatoes, chili, oats, grains, rice, puddings, you name it! We’re cooking our own plant-based desserts, splurging on rich homemade pasta sauces, and making our own seasoning blends all the time. We have a freezer full of frozen veggies to steam, fresh and frozen fruits. We’re cooking WAY more than we ever did before. We have some favorite whole-food plant-based chefs and cookbook authors that we follow as well, such as Chef Del Sroufe, Chef AJ, The Happy Herbivore,, the recipe section at the Forks Over Knives site and many more. We’re finding that our Vitamix, pressure cooker and Cuisinart food processor are our three most used tools now, especially the Vitamix, which is my favorite kitchen toy of all time. One unexpected benefit of eating this way is that food, for the most part, won’t go bad easily. There’s no vigorous scrubbing of cutting boards or pans to get rid of salmonella or other raw-meat diseases. Washing cooking tools is a breeze and since nothing ‘goes bad’, there’s zero concern of cross-contamination, etc.

Lap PoolAre you exercising?
Absolutely! I have always fondly remembered swimming as a child. Since being fat throughout adulthood, I was too embarrassed to swim in public. Now I am swimming at a local health club, 6-7 times a week. I do short workouts, only about 550 meters (about 20 minutes). It’s brief enough that I enjoy doing it daily, but long enough to see great results.

Don’t you find this lifestyle limiting/radical/too extreme?
Not at all! Removing animal products from my diet has allowed me to try probably 30 different foods (mostly grains, legumes and vegetables) that I had never consumed before. Before, I would probably eat only a handful of entrees (chicken, beef, salmon, pasta, potato, etc). Now I’m eating things like quinoa, collards, kale, shockingly-good-brussels-sprouts, broccoli, cauliflower, and lentil chili, along with fruit-only desserts, no-added-oil concoctions like bean-based condiments and sauces, nut-based ‘cheese’ in cooking, and a hugely-expanded use of herbs and spices to achieve flavors that explode in my mouth (I like strong flavors). Regarding it being radical – I subscribe to the belief shared by Dr. Caldwell Esselstyn that cracking one’s ribs open and having open-heart surgery is pretty extreme. I am choosing to prevent what I consider to be more radical by eating a diet full of foods that won’t clog my arteries! Eating this way makes you heart attack-proof.

How long will you be eating this way?
I have no plans to change how I eat. After learning what I have, why would I want to revert back to an unhealthy lifestyle?

Are you done losing weight/You should stop losing!
No, I’m not quite there yet. Ideal BMI is 18.5-22, and I’m still a good 20 lbs from there. I’m certainly a lot closer than when I started, but still have a little ways to go. Let’s face it – the only reason that humans carry fat is to carry them through times of famine. I don’t foresee any famine on the horizon, so I have no need to carry around fat. If that changes, I can assure you I know how to put weight on very quickly!

Do you have any excess skin from all the weight loss?
Some, but not as bad as I had feared. Hopefully some of that will disappear with time. Come on over, I’ll show it to you. It’s pretty.

Ok, so where do I find information about Whole-Food Plant-Based living?
Glad you asked. That’s what this site is for. Please browse around, specifically at the resources section, where you can find all the books that I have read and learned from, the YouTube section where you can sit in front of your own computer and watch fascinating lectures, and of course, the section on the movie Forks Over Knives, which is what started my journey!