I like to feel good and I gravitate to things that help me to enjoy my life. Who doesn't, after all? And so it was a sad and startling moment for me, about three years ago, when I stepped on a scale realized I was a solid 45 pounds overweight. Even though I still exercised, the pounds had slowly added up year after year, and in little increments I began feeling more and more tired and cranky.
According to the United States Centers for Disease Control, more than one-third of all Americans are obese. I realized that by taking my eye off the ball, I had joined that crowd and become a statistic. Feeling good? Not so much.
I'm nothing if not a problem solver, so the good news was I set out to find a solution. Getting my health on track was incredibly important to me. I wanted to feel good again and enjoy my life. I tried every diet, every food plan and still felt achy and tired... and I was not losing the weight. Next, I asked my wife to try cooking only super healthy meals at home, but the food she made was bland (sorry, honey) and she quickly became sick and tired of all the shopping, chopping and prep the piles of vegetables required each day. After one month, we were feeling defeated. We needed to try another plan.
So I did a Hail Mary and decided it was time to really invest in myself. I put an ad on Craigslist and hired a chef to cook three meals and three snacks for me every day for three months. What a luxury! I told him I wanted between 1600 and 1800 calories a day, with balanced nutrition, and that I didn't care what it tasted like. I wanted to clean my system and lose the weight. And I told him I wanted a bit of chocolate every night as a treat. You have to live, right?
I got lucky -- very lucky. My chef, Stephen Ford, really knows food, and everything he made tasted amazing. My kids even started to pick off my plate. Stephen introduced me to whole grains, leafy greens, fresh herbs and the freshest local foods. It was like I had never tasted these things before. He cooked with no butter, no cream and low salt, but the flavors were plentiful. The servings were large, the food was delectable and within three months I had dropped 30 pounds without sacrifice. My eyes were brighter, my skin was fantastic, I slept like a baby and I was running with an extra spring in my step (food is energy, as they say). And did I mention my mood? Maybe it was because my pants fit better, but whoa, I was a new guy. I felt great!
This food, this experience, changed my life. And that was when the light bulb went off: everyone should have access to fresh and delicious food like this. Forget having a personal chef; for this to work, it would have to be convenient and affordable. That was it. My new mission -- my new path -- was created.
I decided to start a company called Stephanie's Place, named after my daughter, to feed as many people as I could. Later renamed LYFE Kitchen, we now have restaurants in Palo Alto and Los Angeles (with many more to come) and a wide range of delicious and nutritious prepared foods. By September, LYFE Kitchen food will be in thousands of supermarkets across the country.
For me, the worst part about dieting is being hungry. During those three months, I saw that with healthy nutrition, the portions really filled me up. It's all about filling up on the right stuff. I ate snacks like edamame and hummus with veggies in between meals -- and never had a stomach grumble. Draconian plans don't work; if you feel deprived, you'll rebel and cheat. On my plan, I never had the urge.
Here are some of the most important lessons I learned:
- You can't exercise a weight problem away. What started with food has to end with food.
- Food is energy. Great, healthy food will be the fuel to your fire, and quality ingredients will make better parents, employees, bosses and human beings.
- Treats are good! For me, that treat was a little chocolate. When we created LYFE Kitchen, we made sure we offered a chocolate dessert. The difference is that we flavor our chocolate budino with dark chocolate, coconut milk and agave (instead of sugar), and add chia seeds and pomegranate for extra fiber, taste and texture.
- Stick with the old-fashioned stuff. Clean and simple, nutrient-dense food is the way to go.
My happiest moment so far in sharing this food and philosophy came about because of Arianna Huffington. We were feeding attendees of the Democratic National Convention in 2012 at the Huffington Post Oasis, and she introduced me to four women. All of them were severely overweight and looked tired and stressed. It was clear that in working long hours to serve their country, they had let their nutrition go by the wayside. I handed them some plates of LYFE Kitchen's low-calorie Chicken Chile Verde entrée with polenta & black beans and walked away. About 90 seconds later, I felt a tap on my shoulder. They were all beaming -- practically jumping up and down -- and wanted to know where they could get this food.
These women knew they wanted to change their bodies and their lives but had no time and were tired of failures and disappointments. This food gave them hope. As one of them said, "THIS I can do. I've tried every healthy food and hated them but I actually want to eat this!" In all my years as a banker -- in my previous professional life -- I never had such a meaningful day at work.
For me, it's incredibly satisfying to see other companies also moving ahead with delicious food that's nutritious. In a recent story in the New York Times, Mark Bittman called this trend "Improved Fast Food." I think he's onto something. From Veggie Grill to Chop't to Chipotle's lighter fare, it's getting easier and easier to find fresh, healthy, affordable and delicious foods. Together, we can change how America eats.
And are you wondering about my waistline? It's been two-and-a-half years since my experiment and I have kept all of the weight off. You should see the smile on my face. Happy eating, everyone!