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Chef AJ: From Unhealthy to Unprocessed

Chef AJ wants you to stop eating junk! The chef and cooking instructor battled her own body, and the food she was putting in it, until illness finally forced her to take her health into her own hands. In addition to teaching Los Angelenos how to prepare healthy food, she puts out weekly recipe videos with Julieanna Hever, called The Chef and the Dietitian. Chef AJ took a few minutes out of her busy schedule to give me the skinny on her cookbook, Unprocessed.

Chef AJ, health-wise, you’ve had more than your fair share of challenges: You were overweight, then anorexic, then obese; you developed adult onset asthma; your spine was crushed in an accident and you were paralyzed and in a body cast for a year; you contracted a life-threatening lung and liver infection on your honeymoon; you suffered from panic disorder and agoraphobia and didn’t leave the house for over a year; you had several miscarriages, and the first pregnancy resulted in complications that required surgery; and you had several large, bleeding colon polyps. You were a hot mess! But you turned it all around by changing your diet. How difficult was it to go from having 32 oz. Coke Slurpees with eight pumps of vanilla for breakfast and 48 oz. Big Gulp Dr. Peppers for lunch to eating unprocessed, whole, plant-based foods?

While it was difficult initially, I’m quite sure that if I’d let the polyps progress into full-blown cancer, it would have been far more difficult. Also, I had help. I went to the Optimum Health Institute [in San Diego], where I was able to detox without having the pressure of being at work at the same time. So while I did go through some withdrawal, I was in an environment where I was actively learning about what foods caused disease and being nourished with the foods that could reverse the disease.

How did you find the Optimum Health Institute?

I had a magazine of discount vacations, and it was the cheapest place I could find to go ($875 for a whole week). I had no idea it was a healing center and that I would have to put wheatgrass up my butt!!

Sounds like fun!

You say you’d rather see people eat 90% vegan and 90% unprocessed than 100% vegan and 10% unprocessed. Living in New York, it’s easy to be a junk food vegan; there are so many restaurants, bakeries and other goodies at our fingertips. What do you think poses the biggest challenge for people, eating plant-based or eating unprocessed?

Let me first clarify that I’m also an ethical vegan and would prefer that people not even eat 10% of their calories from animal products. But from purely a health standpoint, one would be better off doing that if the other 90% of their diet was truly unprocessed. The problem with many vegans is that they’re just as addicted to processed foods in general, and sugar, oil and salt specifically, as carnivores are. I think it’s easier for people to eat plant-based than unprocessed. There are many foods that are vegan, and even organic, that aren’t health-promoting, like agave, coconut oil and all of the fake vegan meats and cheeses. Eating these fake and processed foods may earn you a place in animal heaven, but it doesn’t make you bulletproof against Western lifestyle diseases. I cannot tell you how many vegans I know who have cancer and diabetes from eating a VegJUNKtarian diet. Sure, these foods may be okay as transition foods and an occasional treat, but some vegans never transition and just eat crap!

Chef AJ’s Hail to the Kale Salad features a nutty dressing that makes even the most salad-averse gobble their greens. I used sunflower butter and seeds instead of almonds, and it was delish!

Your aunt’s mother Memé studied at the Cordon Bleu and made gourmet, whole-food meals for you while you lived with that part of your family; my mother shoved me in front of the TV with chicken TV dinners every night. For me, food wasn’t a joy; it had to be fast and convenient and filling, and that’s where my interest stopped. Do you think you would have made it to the other side if you hadn’t had experienced Memé’s cooking?

If I hadn’t experienced eating real food as a child, I would probably be like so many other people I know who eat only processed foods and animal products: fat, sick and nearly dead (which, by the way, is the name of a wonderful movie!).

You talk about addictions to hyper-palatable foods: sugar, fat and salt. Why are these foods so hard to kick if they’re so bad for us?

To really answer that question scientifically would take me an hour. (I actually do a presentation called “How to Avoid The Evil Trinity,” where I cover this in-depth.) But one can gain all of the understanding on why processed food, vegan or not, is addictive by reading the books The Pleasure Trap and The End of Overeating. In a nutshell, sugar, fat and salt work together to make food damn near irresistible. The perfect combination of sugar, fat and salt addicts most people’s brain chemistry, and the more sugar, fat and salt one eats, the more one craves. In addition, the more highly concentrated the calories, the more dopamine—a feel-good brain chemical—is released. People are stressed and looking for that hit of dopamine, which they get from eating processed food. Most people are just like rats pressing the bar for their next fix of something sweet, fatty or salty. They’re so addicted that even the thought of giving up these foods causes discomfort. If you look at some of the research done with rats, when given a choice of cocaine or sugar, 94% of the rats chose sugar!!! And once they were addicted and the sugar was withdrawn and healthy rat chow was given, all of the rats chose to starve themselves to death rather than eat the healthy food when they couldn’t get sugar. Does this sound like anyone you know?

I’ll take the Fifth on that one.

In your book, you say that Louise Hay’s You Can Heal Your Life helped turn you around. What in particular did you take away from the book?

That our thoughts and words are powerful, and that what we think about we bring about—if we want to create health, we have to think healthy thoughts—and that there’s a “probable mental thought pattern” associated with all diseases.

Your father died from coronary artery disease, your mom suffered from dementia and heart failure, your grandmother died of colon cancer, your mom and other grandmother had bowel obstructions, and your uncle had 80% of his colon removed. But for many people, like you, a road map of what’s probably going to kill them often isn’t enough to convince them to make life-saving changes. You yourself had polyps that were so advanced they couldn’t be removed. If you hadn’t been so afraid of drugs and surgery, would you have made the changes you did, changes that ultimately sent your polyps packing, and within just six months?

No, I probably would have just had them surgically removed and gone on eating my disease-promoting diet. I have friends who’ve had cancer for the second time, and they still won’t change their diet. Doctors are given almost no training in nutrition in medical school, and people believe that diet has nothing to do with whether or not we get a disease. That is why books like The China Study and movies like Forks Over Knives are so great; they’re bringing this information to the masses. The information has been around a very long time. Even Hippocrates said, “Let food be thy medicine.”

The pineapple juice sweetness of AJ’s Sweet and Sour Tempeh is balanced by the coolness and crunch of the green peppers.

You recommend eating a diet that’s organic, raw and plant-based, and free of sugar, oil and salt. But that’s not easy when you’re on the go. How can busy people with stressful jobs working long hours eat well?

Well, here’s the thing: You have to make it a priority. And in my opinion, your health should be your number-one priority. Everyone has enough time to tweet and check their Facebook account and play Angry Birds; people always make time for what they truly value. So first you need to make it a priority. Then there are things you can do, like putting all of the ingredients in your blender for your green smoothie the night before or putting everything in the crock pot before going to work. But remember, if you’re stressed, you’re looking for that hit of dopamine you get from eating crap. You’re not going to get it from eating fruit and veggies.

You said something that really caught my attention, being the sugar addict that I am: Sugar inhibits the absorption of other nutrients. How so?

Again, I’m not a scientist, so I can’t explain the exact mechanism. But if you read Suicide by Sugar or Sugar Blues, these experts can tell you exactly how it works. Sugar, like oil and alcohol, is at best empty calories: It provides zero fiber and zero nutrients. And many experts will tell you that it feeds cancer. Disease can exist only if the body is in an acidic state or in a state of inflammation. And sugar, like all processed foods, is acidifying and causes inflammation in the body. It really is more like a drug than a food.

You quote Jack LaLanne as saying: “You wouldn’t wake up your dog in the morning and give him a cup of coffee, a doughnut and a cigarette, so why would you do that to yourself?” I’ve never been a smoker, but I could definitely go for the coffee and the doughnut. What do you have to get yourself going in the morning?

Because I’ve been sugar-, caffeine- and chocolate-free for so long, I no longer need stimulation—I wake up every morning and literally jump out of bed with boundless energy that lasts all day. I also need very little sleep. Most people have to medicate themselves with coffee in the morning to wake up and alcohol at night to calm down; I get all the energy I need from my green smoothies in the morning. And it’s sustained energy, not like the crash and burn you get from sugar and caffeine.

You say you eat lots of bananas and white potatoes, but from what I understand, they’re both high on the glycemic index, and highly caloric. Why are they staples for you?

I rarely eat potatoes; I prefer sweet potatoes. I like bananas because they’re great in smoothies, but really I eat all fruits and veggies. How can you say bananas are caloric at 300 calories a pound? And potatoes have 400 calories a pound. Sugar has 1, 800 calories a pound and oil 4,000 calories a pound!!! And we don’t just eat foods based on the glycemic index alone; the glycemic load is more important. If the glycemic index were a health indicator, then we should all be eating Häagen-Dazs ice cream instead of carrots because it’s lower on the glycemic index. And why not down a bottle of low-glycemic agave, which is the worst crap in the world—even worse than sugar!!!

AJ’s Hockey Pucks—dates, cashew butter (I’m allergic to almonds), cocoa powder, vanilla extract, dates—are rich, creamy and delicious, yet healthy. My consistency might be a little off—we had to eat ours with utensils—but there was nothing wrong with the flavor!

What do you think about eating a completely raw diet?

Unless one is eating and chewing fruits and veggies all day, a raw diet is difficult to maintain unless one starts eating processed raw crap like olive oil, coconut oil, agave or too many nuts and seeds. I think people should eat high raw, as many raw fruits and veggies as they possibly can, but there’s nothing wrong with eating some cooked foods, like lightly steamed veggies, beans, legumes and whole grains. There are micronutrients in some foods that actually become more bioavailable when cooked.

Most of your recipes can be prepped in minutes and cooked in less than 30—that’s music to my ears! I made your Hail to the Kale Salad, Sweet and Sour Tempeh, and Hockey Pucks, all of which thrilled everyone in my house, including my two vegan chef housemates! The biggest shocker was that my husband couldn’t eat the tempeh fast enough, and he typically hates tempeh. So in my eyes, you’re a genius! One question: Why no serving sizes in the book? It made me a little batty.

Actually, almost all of my recipes have seven or fewer easy-to-find ingredients and can be prepared in less than 30 minutes. I chose not to include serving sizes because I don’t know how much someone else eats. The beauty of an unprocessed, SOS-free diet is that unless you’re gorging on nuts and seeds, you can pretty much eat all you want; you can eat to satiation and satisfaction. Eat when hungry, stop when full. No weighing, measuring or calorie counting necessary! So how much is that for you? I don’t know. How can I dictate how much someone else can or should eat? It all depends on their activity level and how hungry they are!!!

When you put it like that it makes sense! Though when cooking for other people, serving sizes are helpful— (FYI, readers: The Tempeh and Kale dishes yielded about four servings each, and we ended up with 16 Hockey Pucks.)

What’s your Unprocessed 30-Day Challenge?

It’s a program I run in LA, where I live. Participants come to my home five Sunday nights in a row for meals and support. They pledge to eat unprocessed for 30 days, and they get daily e-mail support and weekly phone support. In this program, people have lost weight, lowered their cholesterol to within normal limits, gone off their statins and diabetes medications, refined their palates and lost tremendous amounts of weight. The “winner” of the challenge gets a front-row ticket to the annual event I produce called Healthy Taste of LA. This year, Dr. T. Colin Campbell is our keynote.

Support and competition—a little something to motivate everyone! Thanks for the chat, AJ, and for the healthy, delicious recipes!


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    This is a great article! Thanks for posting it on Budettes, Chef AJ. Also, I’m considering joining your 30-Day Challenge!

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    I am happy to see more people attempting to change the way we think about food and what we are consuming? Consumers have the right to know where their food comes from and how animals are treated before they reach their plates. This is a good, short video to watch about this topic: Or visit for more information on adapting a more compassionate lifestyle.

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    Totally new to reading blogs, but have become quite interested after attending a Whole Foods cooking class by Chef AJ.
    Someone mentioned a Thai noodle receipe on the blog any one have any ideas