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Three years ago, chef Matt Jennings, then over 400 pounds, was given the option to live or die.
He told his doctor that he wanted to live — but it involved making several drastic lifestyle changes.
On Wednesday, the award-winning chef stopped by the TODAY kitchen to share his transformed healthy outlook on life — and a delicious new recipe.
Jennings is well-known in the food industry. He's been nominated five times for the James Beard Foundation's Best Chef of the Northeast. He and his wife, Kate, a pastry chef, ran two highly praised restaurants in Rhode Island and Boston before closing the latter in July 2018 to focus on Jennings' culinary consulting agency. According to the chef, Full Heart Hospitality is devoted to culture, people and bringing wellness into the restaurant business.
And there's a reason Jennings has truly put his full heart behind it.
When Jennings visited his doctor in 2016, he showed signs of pre-diabetes, had high cholesterol and was suffering from acute anxiety disorder. Severely overweight, he spent his days and nights in a fast-paced kitchen, often tasting food behind the scenes and quickly losing track of how much he was actually eating.
"What a lot of people don’t understand is that food can be an addiction. Like any good addict, I had my gutter moment," Jennings told TODAY Food. "I walked home and into my kitchen and told my wife, it’s time to change my life. I had to get healthy for myself, my wife and my kids."
This decision came with Jennings' realization that somewhere between being a "creative, curious, very active" kid and the stresses of adulthood, he'd lost himself and what it truly feels like to be healthy.
"Once you’ve decided wellness — most importantly feeling healthy — is of central importance in your life, then and only then will you make progress in physically changing your life," Jennings told TODAY.
Eating healthy, the chef says, isn't just about food. It's also about mental, physical, emotional and even spiritual health. Food — especially for a chef — is, of course, a big part of the equation.
"These days, I’m focusing on eating lean proteins, very vegetable heavy, grains. I like balance, I like flavor and I like simplicity," Jennings added.
He showed the TODAY anchors how to make one of his favorite healthy, yet hearty, dishes: fish cooked in a paper bag with potatoes, olives and herbs. Said Jennings, "I love this recipe because it's simple, clean, fresh, healthy and delicious. Plus, clean up is as simple as folding up the bag and throwing it away!"
But eating less was just one of the tools Jennings used to help him lose 200 pounds. In 2016, he chose to undergo a sleeve gastrectomy, a surgical procedure in which the stomach is reduced in size. But the chef is adamant that bariatric surgery isn't an easy fix, but rather a serious procedure designed to help people who are very overweight start on the right path better health. Keeping weight off after the surgery, the chef says, involved major lifestyle changes.
However, Jennings has advice for anyone looking to lose weight, or simply trying to eat healthier to feel better.
"By making small changes in your diet, focusing on high quality foods, eating more frequently, smaller amounts throughout the day, these are all things that will add to the ability for you to take your health back," Jennings said.
He continued: "When I look back at photos of the past ... I see someone who didn’t even have the chance to pick his head up from the work he was doing to recognize the ability he had within himself to save his own life."
Chef Matt Jennings' diet hacks for life:
- Hydrate the hunger. Drink plenty of water every day. Jennings drinks up to 1/2 gallon.
- Whole grains are great. Whole grains make your body work harder and help prevent blood sugar spikes commonly seen after the consumption of highly processed starches.
- Pigments are a plus. Seek out a variety of color when planning your meals, particularly with vegetables. In addition to macro and micro nutrients, phytonutrients are quickly gaining recognition among researchers as being beneficial.
- Set a timer. Use phone or watch alarms to alert you when it's snack time. If you're super busy during the day, you might forget to enjoy a little something and end up overeating at the next meal.
- Bad eating day? Don't panic! We all mess up so it's important not to beat yourself up about minor setbacks. Stay positive, make a game plan for the next day and get back to it!
Check out of more of Matt Jennings' favorite recipes: