He is a man with a passion for food.
“I love food,” says celebrated Chef Art Smith, “Food is love.”
There’s just a lot less of Smith to love these days, and he has never felt better. A diabetes diagnosis 6 years ago, just shy of his 50th birthday, was a wake-up call that led to a stunning 100-pound weight loss.
These days when Smith is recognized, people do double takes. Yes, he’s still that Art Smith, but a healthier version.
Smith was Oprah Winfrey’s personal chef for 10 years. He was also a celebrity chef on 'Bravo’s Top Chef Masters.' Now he's working on the launch of a new restaurant in Naples, Italy, and is currently the executive chef of Lyfe Kitchen, a healthy (and delicious) restaurant chain in Culver City, Playa Vista and Palo Alto, California; Boulder, Colorado; Evanston, Illinois; and Henderson, Nevada.
Juggling a demanding schedule is second nature to Smith. But having diabetes took some getting used to, despite the fact that the disease runs throughout his family. “My family has been challenged with type 2 diabetes for many years,” says Smith whose mother has type 2.
“I lost a father and a grandfather due to complications of the disease, so I know diabetes. I know I need to take responsibility. I understand the repercussions of dealing with it—or not dealing with it.”
Just like so many dealing with diabetes, the bestselling cookbook author and confirmed foodie went through a period in his 40s when he was busy and stressed. His weight began to steadily skyrocket. At his highest, he weighed 325 pounds.
“I’ve always been challenged with my weight. The pounds built up steadily and kept building. Like I said, I love food. I love creating great meals and I love to eat,” Smith says.
Life stresses also entered the picture.
“I spent quite a large part of my life taking care of other people, but not myself,” he admits, explaining that a few years ago, his partner had cancer (which has since gone into remission).
A Life Wake-Up Call
Smith was sure he was having a heart attack when he began suffering chest pains 6 years ago. The pain landed him in the ER where the doctors had a different diagnosis: diabetes.
Prior to the chest pains, there'd also been other physical symptoms—including vision changes and fatigue—that Smith chose to ignore. If it weren't for the chest pains, who knows how long it might have taken to get his diabetes diagnosis.
What kept Smith from seeing his doctor? “I had a tremendous amount of fear,” he says. “This is so common with people who don’t go in for a diagnosis. The truth is when you have fear, the best thing to do is to go see your doctor. Just knowing and taking care of it gets rid of the fear.”
Smith’s doctor was upfront. “My blood sugar was really high,” he says. “It was serious and I needed to go on meds.”
He also developed a diabetes lifestyle plan with his doctor. This included hiring Az Ferguson, co-author of The Game On! Diet book as his coach. They began with two weeks of observing Art’s habits. (One of his worst was eating two to three peanut butter sandwiches as a snack). “Just becoming aware of my food intake was a great start. You don’t need a coach to do that. Just keep an exact food diary,” Smith says.
“As a chef, I had to learn not to eat the bulk of my calories at night and actually eat breakfast,” he said.
He also scheduled regular doctor visits.
“My doctor said, ‘You know what, Art? I can check your vitals and give you medicine, but you’re the one who has to take responsibility for your health. The journey from here is really up to you.”
“The first thing I had to do is lose some major weight,” said Smith who started with what was on his own fork.
That’s challenging enough for most people, but Smith spends his days in the kitchen. “I found as a chef, I have so much food around me all the time, plus I’m always testing this and that. You wind up tasting more than you even think,” he says.”I loved tasting friend chicken and my mac and cheese.”
Smith started dropping the pounds by becoming more aware of exactly what was going into his mouth including portions, sugar and fat content.
“I changed my life from eating three larger meals a day to eating several smaller meals. In the past, I’d even skip breakfast or make some pancakes with syrup. The smaller meals help you. It was a way to keep closer track while eating less,” he says.
He also became very keen of the specifics of food. “You might think, ‘Oh, you have type 2 diabetes. Just limit sugar’ but watching your fat is also important when it comes to losing weight.”
He said that getting his eating under control was challenging at first. “What was tough for me at first was learning that if I didn’t eat the small meals then my blood sugar would fluctuate. If I missed a small meal then I would get dizzy.”
Finding a reasonable routine was key.
“I travel around the country to visit my restaurants, which means a busy schedule,” said the author of Art Smith’s Healthy Comfort, a New York Times bestseller. “I had to take this diagnosis to heart and take some time for myself to focus on how I could be a busy person who has a healthy diet and finds time each day to exercise.”
Smith said that his routine begins with the first sip. “When I wake up in the morning, I drink a glass of water,” he says. “It gets everything started.”
He makes sure to have a healthy breakfast that combines protein and carbs. “I feel that if you start out healthy in the morning then you will continue eating that way throughout the day, “he says. “My goal is to eat a whole grain as well as a protein. Oatmeal cost pennies or I’ll have eggs.
“Protein is so important first thing in the morning because it keeps those hunger pains away,” he says. “So, a great breakfast for me is steel-cut oatmeal with raw almonds, but I never use the flavored packets with all that sugar. I make the plain oats and add some frozen berries and the yogurt. I switch it up with non-fat Greek yogurt and berries or I’ll do an egg whites omelet.”
Smith is always on the go and travels frequently, so he plans ahead for a mid-morning snack. “You can always pack an apple and they’re great because they don’t spike your blood sugar like a banana will,” he said. His other go-to snacks include raw almonds, a switch from his previous love of potato chips.
A beautiful chopped salad is his go to lunch because he can create it the night before, take it with him or order it anywhere. “Anyone can chop your favorite veggies and a protein like chicken and make a great salad. I find that if I add enough veggies, I don’t even need a salad dressing.”
His dinners follow a similar pattern of a grilled lean protein and a veggie.
Smith is also careful about what he drinks. No more diet soda for him. “I drink a lot of water,” he says. “The problem with diet soda is that it’s so addictive. You have to break the habit, stop drinking chemicals and fall in love with water again.”
Part of what got Smith to his 100-lb weight loss goal was incorporating exercise into his life. “I jog, but that’s still a challenge for me,” he says. “When it comes to moving…just move. Find something that challenges you and do it each day.”
He’s happy to report that his efforts have also helped get his A1C in control. Now Smith advises others to get their A1C checked and to monitor their blood sugar. “Information is power,” he says.
He adds that the daily struggle with eating healthy is one you can win. “Trust me when I say that I know a piece of chocolate will make me happy. But being healthy makes me happier.”
Getting his own health back was an inspiration to open Lyfe Kitchens. “The idea is that you can eat out, but stay on your healthy eating plan. And the food is delicious.”
Smith says he’s proud of his life transformation and hopes it encourages others.
“If a chef can do it and be around food, you can do it, too,” he said with a smile.