Chefs' Diet Secrets

Medically Reviewed by Kathleen M. Zelman, RD, LD, MPH on August 14, 2014
4 min read

Imagine if you spent all day cooking, thinking about, and tasting food -- and still wanted to stay in shape. Professional chefs know exactly what that's like, because they do it every day.

They face some unique challenges, like being around delicious food all the time. Add in a stressful job and late hours, and you have a recipe for weight gain.

But many chefs are finding ways around that, and their tricks may inspire you, too.

How is it possible to eat all the time and still be hungry? Most chefs say they taste small amounts of food all day long but rarely sit down to a full meal.

Chef Dale Talde, co-owner of Brooklyn, NY, restaurant TALDE, says it’s a requirement of a chef’s job to taste every dish that leaves the kitchen to make sure it’s up to standards.

Talde, who has been on the Bravo's Channel’s Top Chefs and Top Chef All-Stars, figures that amounts to eating thousands of calories each day.

“But you never eat a full meal,” he says. “You’re not hungry, but you’re not totally satisfied either.”

Over the years, Talde gained about 30 pounds. His blood pressure rose, too.

So he got creative about cutting back on calories and salt. One of his biggest tricks is making sure he doesn’t let himself get too hungry.

“I don’t [usually] like to eat before noon, but now I wake up earlier to get something healthy in -- some cottage cheese with salsa and arugula, for example. That way I have something in my stomach before I go to work,” Talde says.

That's smart, says Susan Bowerman, MS, RD, CSSD, director of nutrition training for Herbalife International.

She says eating a good breakfast -- with some protein and healthy carbohydrates such as fruit -- helps keep hunger at bay, making you less likely to overeat.

Drinking fine wines and liquors often goes with the territory for a chef. But alcohol adds a lot of calories to your day.

Half a bottle of wine, for example, is about 250 calories, Bowerman says. Drinking also loosens your resolve to eat well.

Talde switches between a glass of wine and a glass of sparkling water at dinner. He also drinks water from a wine glass to make it feel more special. “It doesn’t feel like I’m missing out on anything,” Talde says.

Good idea, Bowerman says. “It may be something just about feeling the stem of the glass that elevates the meal to something more special.”

She also suggests adding up the total number of drinks you have in a week and then cutting it by a third. “Can you cut out one night, rather than cutting back every single day?” she asks.

Chef Nikki Cascone was a contestant on the Bravo Channel's fourth season of Top Chef. She says her naturally fast metabolism kept her slim for most of her life.

But after she had a baby, that changed.

Cascone finds that the chef’s lifestyle makes it difficult to eat well. “You’re never really off when you get to a certain level, especially when you own a restaurant. There are late-night hours, and it’s a very tense environment. I’ve had to train myself to eat healthy,” she says.

Cascone packs her meals into one bowl, filled with legumes, seeds, vegetables, and some lean protein (like chicken).

“She’s practicing portion control,” Bowerman says.

You could also control your portions by using a smaller plate. “It’s about the visual impact of looking at a full plate of food,” Bowerman says.

Diane Henderiks, RD, is a personal chef and culinary nutritionist. Her goal is to raise the culinary bar for healthy cooking. “I switch up ingredients to maintain the integrity of the dish without fat and sodium,” she says.

Henderiks’s motto is that any dish can be made healthier. She cooks with fresh and dried herbs, citrus juices, and nectars to make dressings low in fat and sugar. Ground turkey substitutes for ground beef, applesauce or yogurt is used in place of butter, broth or wine replaces oil, and marinades and rubs add flavor to meat without adding calories.

Cascone also uses a balsamic vinegar reduction (balsamic vinegar cooked on the stove top until it becomes a syrup) for a very low-calorie salad dressing.

For the home chef, these are great techniques that add up, Bowerman says. “Cutting fat and calories becomes habit.”