Tips for Healthy eating, mindfulness and weight loss with Chef AJ

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Chef AJ is a pioneer when it comes to a healthy, whole-foods plant-based diet. She considers herself an “OG” Ethical Vegan for over 40 years. A renowned Chef, member of the American College of Lifestyle Medicine, holding a certificate in Plant-Based Nutrition from Cornell University, Chef AJ has touched millions of lives.

Interview Transcript

Sean Hashmi, MD

All right. Well, welcome to our very first interview. So I am so excited; I get the honor, the pleasure, and the incredible opportunity to have somebody I look up to. And it’s interesting because this individual you guys will get to hear from today, I have with the just sheer luck to meet her. And ever since I’ve met her, the more I learn about her, the more I’m just absolutely amazed.

So we’re delighted, Chef AJ. Thank you.  This is such an honor for you to come and to share all of the work you’re doing. For some of our audience who may not know a little bit about Chef AJ… What’s fascinating about you is you’re such a pioneer. I was just looking at your YouTube channel. You have one hundred and twelve thousand people who subscribe to the channel, seventy-three thousand on Facebook, and sixty-two thousand on Instagram. I went on Amazon, and I ordered your books because I’m so excited to read them.

So what I see there is I see three books that you’ve done, and I’m really curious to ask you all about them. But what I was really amazed and impressed by was your personal journey.  I was watching some of your stuff yesterday, and I was so emotional. It was a good thing that I was alone, and nobody saw me. But I wanted to start by really asking a little bit about you: your journey, who you are, and then kind of go from there.

Chef AJ

I consider myself an OG, you know what they say, like an old gangster vegan. And because I’ve been vegan longer than a lot of people have been alive. Forty-three and a half years. And you know what started as an ethical journey and I’m still an ethical vegan turned into one really far more about health: my health, the health of the planet. Because when I was 17 in nineteen seventy-seven, nobody was talking about global warming. At least nobody I knew was talking about reversing diabetes or heart disease with a plant-based diet.

So I went vegan for ethical reasons. And then I found out, guess what, it’s good for everything really. The planet, your own health. And so that’s kind of what I’ve dedicated my life to, because I, I feel like it’s really important if we’re going to have a planet, we’ve got to do something about the stage of the world right now. And we’ve got to either completely eliminate or really cut down on the amount of animals we’re eating.

Sean Hashmi, MD

You know, it’s fascinating. The more research I do into the impact on the environment, it’s incredible. And how much pollution actually affects our own health. So, I specialize in kidney disease and we’re starting to now learn that even air pollution has a significant impact on kidneys. So tell me, as you were going through this, you know. What was your journey like? What were some of the obstacles you faced and how did you overcome them?

Because what I know, what inspires me and fascinates me is this concept of resilience. And some people have it and others face the smallest obstacle and fall down and they don’t want to get up. But I watch your shows and the ability that you have to inspire, there’s this energy, but it’s more like there’s the spirit about you that just it makes people want to listen.

Chef AJ

Well, it’s funny because I do a daily show, and today I interviewed somebody who was born to a mother who was addicted to crack cocaine.

And I said to him, I said, well, did you ever have any struggles with addiction? And he was like, “no”. And he was raised with the belief that you could overcome anything. That didn’t mean that life wasn’t going to be challenging or difficult. But I think of whatever happened to me that was difficult. I know there are so many people that have it so much worse, you know. And I think that you know, when I see I get inspired by people. Like, for example, there’s a gentleman who I actually heard speak and won’t be able to pronounce his last name.

Nick was born without arms and legs. And he’s a motivational speaker now. And so whenever I really start to feel sorry for myself, and I’ve had some things happened that were tragic and unfortunate and difficult, but I always think that you know, I’m still breathing.  And my mom always said any day above ground is a good day. And so, as long as I have so much to be thankful for and it doesn’t mean things aren’t difficult, but I know that too many people have it worse.

And I see people like him that people that have created just incredibly meaningful, inspiring lives, despite what other people would look at as difficulties or disabilities. And I think it’s really possible and I think it really starts with a lot. You have to be grateful. You really do, because there’s just always something to be grateful for.

Sean Hashmi, MD

You know, let me ask you, you know, even and, you know. I read your story, and I was so moved by it. Even in my own life, I went through so many tragedies and so many hardships. And I know that so many of those people are going to say, look, you know, I’m really in a bad spot. You know, things have just not been going my way. What could you say to them to help them?

Chef AJ

I say take a deep breath because if you can breathe, there’s hope. Honestly, I believe that. And this is where I think, and again, you don’t have to take a course or see a doctor necessarily, but some degree of mindfulness really, really helps. And I’ve taken the training a couple of times at UCLA. And the idea is…If you’re living in the present moment, obviously, you know, if you’re, some things can be painful, the present moment.

But for the most part, most people’s pain is caused by worrying about something that hasn’t happened yet or thinking about something that’s already happened. And I tend to do that. It’s funny because my husband is always living in the past, and I’m always worried about the future. And I remember the lady that married us twenty-six years ago said there’s nobody here in the present to have the marriage. But if you really take the present moment, probably right now. Things are not bad right now.

And so I think that learning some mindfulness and again. There are free courses online; there’s a whole course called mindfulness that people can take for free. You don’t have to go to some university or place to teach it. I think that really helps to know that in the present moment, things maybe aren’t as bad as you think, you know.

Sean Hashmi, MD

So let me ask you. What is the day in the life of Chef AJ like? What do you do in a typical day? What kind of stuff do you eat? What kind of stuff do you practice? How does that look like?

Chef AJ

Well, I keep busy, and I think for me, and I think people are different that way because my husband just thinks I work too much. But for me, keeping busy is really important because when I’m not busy, that’s when all the when I like the monkey mind in the chatter starts. So I will be doing being productively busy doing something that you enjoy, if at all possible.

And I think a lot of times when people are unhappy because they’re not doing meaningful work. And by meaningful work, I don’t mean like you have to be like saving lives, but something that’s meaningful to you. Something that you enjoy. And, you know, when I talk to people, it seems like when people are not happy with their work, it’s even worse when then when they’re not happy with their relationship because you can leave your relationship for like eight or 10 hours a day to go to work.

But like, it’s like most people can’t leave their job. Right. And so I think because I can think of times in my life, I really hated my job. And I think doing something that you love is so important. And if you can’t change your job right now, then find another outlet. Whether it’s taking a painting class or doing volunteer work. But you’ve got to you got to. I mean, you only have a certain amount of minutes in your life.

And so you got to I think it’s important to spend it doing things you love more than doing things you don’t love to do.

Sean Hashmi, MD

So, you know, most people when they wake up in the morning. They say, you know, I need to work out, I need to meditate. It takes too long. What’s your routine? Are you one of those people who likes to do it in the morning?

Chef AJ

Absolutely. I do not meditate. I have tried for years. And that doesn’t mean that I don’t do things that are mindful and meditative. But that formal kind of, it didn’t work for me.

I’m just too anxious of a person. But the first thing I do when I wake up this exercise. If I don’t do it first thing, it doesn’t get done. I promise you. And for me, what that looks like is I have a spin bike.  And the spin bike is right by my bed. So it’s not like I got to go very far. And, you know, that really helped me, Dr. Hashmi, to get that bike.

It was my friend who is a psychologist in the plant-based world, Dr. Doug Lyle. He ran a cost-benefit analysis, and we figured out what it cost me to join the gym and to have to fight for a parking space and get up early in the morning. And the time I was spending. It’s like there are people that buy exercise equipment and use it as a clothes hanger. But both my husband and I really use this, especially since covid when the gyms are closed.

And it’s been a Godsend because I use the bike as a way to get to do fun stuff. And so what I mean by that is I do not love exercise. I didn’t start exercising until about ten years ago, and I don’t love it the way some people do, but I realize how it’s so. I think a lot of people are stressed or unhappy or anxious or depressed. They’ve shown in clinical trials that exercise is effective as anti-anxiety medicine and antidepressant medication. Both of which had been on many years ago.

I think you have to do it, just like the people in the pill. They got to take the pill every day, right. For it to be effective. Well, when Dr. Lyle explained to me that that was my antidepressant. It was like, oh, so I’m not exercising to lose weight or be it’s like I am doing it for the mental health benefits. And unfortunately, killing lasts about twenty-four hours. But I tell you, when you start your day in that way, it’s just you have a whole nother outlook on your day.

And I know it’s hard. I’m very fortunate that I get to work at home. Maybe you got to give up something else, like a little Facebook or something. But what I’ve learned to do is I don’t look forward to exercising, but there’s a couple of things like I call them guilty pleasures.

I don’t really watch television, but I do have Netflix on my phone. So I might use that time to watch something. I might use that time to play words with friends. So it’s almost like I feel guilty like I don’t even think I’m not mindful of the exercise, but by linking it with something, something I don’t love with something that I really like. I don’t mind it so much. But also, it just becomes a habit.

I don’t really like brushing my teeth, but no matter how tired I am at night, I do. I really do. And it’s just, you know, if you keep doing it over and over and over, it will become a habit. And again, people don’t always love exercise, but you can find something you hate the least. That’s what I always tell people. And but I think the people that if it’s a group of people that do it all the time until you are one of those people, you don’t know what we’re talking about, about the benefits, because it can be hard. Especially after a lifetime of inactivity, to get that body moving.

There’s like energy conservation principle at play. But when you do, I bet you’ll see your life change. And again, so for some people, that would be a group exercise class like Zumba or dancing. But there is something that you will probably like if you really think about what you like to do. When you were little. Was it riding a bike? Was it jumping on a trampoline? There’s got to be something for everybody. Swimming.

And if you’re in a place where your body is where it’s difficult, there are people like physical therapists who can help you ease into it. But even in a chair, I remember I had this client once. All I can exercise, I have a trigger thumb. And I’m thinking. Well, what about your legs? Do they not move? So I get it. Because listen,  I try to avoid it for years. But I think it really needs to be non-negotiable. Because in our society, I remember when I was in high school, they stuff physical education.

I mean… People don’t go outside and play anymore. This is how kids play today. So, I don’t know.

Sean Hashmi, MD

You know, I have two daughters, and it’s really, really difficult to get them off of those phones. I don’t know how they got started. But, what I did was, my older one is eight, and she’s just tall enough where she can stand and bike. So she wakes up at six-thirty to work out with me. It’s wonderful! She only does ten minutes, but that ten minutes of father-daughter bonding is like the best thing ever for me.

Chef AJ

That’s really cool.

Sean Hashmi, MD

And I’ll tell you; you said that meditation is hard for some people. You’re absolutely right. In fact, you know, what the data shows is even if you can’t meditate and you exercise, you get exactly the same benefits. And so it’s fascinating is you know, there’s no super bullet. But whatever you can to wherever you are to however you can, those are the things that matter. And that’s why what I love about you is all of the obstacles that you’ve faced, you’ve overcome.

And when people ask you questions, whether it’s on YouTube or your shows or so forth, your answers are so simple that it makes you step back and say, well, of course, that makes sense. Why am I not doing it? I love that. So let me ask you now, we got through the morning, you got your workout in, what are some healthy breakfast options? You know, we as people who practice a Whole Foods plant-based diet. When it comes to breakfast, people always say, I have no idea what to eat.

I mean, I eat the same thing every day. So it’s very, very simple for me. But I’m really curious about you. What are your thoughts on breakfast?  What kind of foods do you like?

Chef AJ

I think people most people do eat the same thing every day, whether it’s healthy or unhealthy. How many people eat thirty different breakfast, not too many. Think about the word breakfast. Break-fast. So I think the best breakfast is the one you eat when you’re hungry.

And so if you wake up at six-thirty in the morning and you’re not hungry till eleven, that’s breakfast. I don’t think people should force themselves to eat because of the number on the clock. And I understand there are people with jobs and they don’t get a break. They’re worried. But I actually have solutions for that, too. I mean, unless they’re like in a sterile operating room and they can’t bring food in.

So, I like savory breakfasts. And the reason I say that is because I’m somebody that’s struggled with obesity for over 50 years. Eating a lot of sugar and flour and desserts. And I think that a lot of Americans don’t really eat breakfast. They eat dessert for breakfast: croissant, cinnamon bun, donut, a cup of coffee, sugar, caffeine, flour. And so I find that for my husband and me, he doesn’t struggle with weight or any of that.

But eating a savory breakfast, it just sets the day off right. Because when you activate it, at least in my opinion. The sweet tooth early on, even with something healthy like oatmeal and fruit. I find that I want sugar all day. I learned, and I didn’t know this at first, that the people in the blue zones, which are like the longest live populations. They eat savory breakfasts. Only in America is breakfast dessert in other parts of the world.

Breakfast is whatever we have for dinner the night before it. It doesn’t have to be bacon and eggs or things like that. And so I find that for people that especially struggle with weight is starting the day in a savory way is a very good thing. So even if you’re eating oats instead of oatmeal with banana and dates and raisins. Maybe oatmeal with greens and chunky mushrooms and sun-dried tomatoes, one of the things that I discovered quite accidentally, but it turned out last year when Dr. Greger published his book. How Not To Die. Is it green vegetables, because I recommend people start their day with vegetables.  Doesn’t mean just vegetables.  But, vegetable with something else. Are that these compounds called Thylokoid, which are present in cruciferous vegetables. Apparently have an incredible effect on the ability to block fat, to turn off the hunger switch, to stop cravings. So I recommend a serving of vegetables at every meal, including breakfast, whatever. Even if you’re going to eat a doughnut, eat a doughnut with some kale.

But I think that helps. And again, I think that a lot of people are into intermittent fasting these days and there may be health benefits. I don’t do it for that reason. I just feel like it’s best to eat when you’re actually hungry. And I think so many people get in the habit of eating when they’re really not hungry because they were taught that breakfast is the most important meal. If you look at that research, it was done by the cereal industry that wanted everybody to eat breakfast.

I think it’s the only the most important meal if you actually eat something healthy and eat it when you’re truly hungry. Because hunger is the best sauce.

Sean Hashmi, MD

I’m still thinking about Kale donuts.  What’s a great concept.

Chef AJ

Why not. The Esselstyns’ has a kale-cake in their book. So why not some kale donuts?

Sean Hashmi, MD

Do they really do? Yeah. So, ok, so we got breakfast. Now when it comes to people as they’re going down their journey and they’re trying to lose weight. The difficulty that a lot of people face is, when they have issues in their lives, the only friend sometimes they have is food.

And the interesting part and in my field, some of the things that I always hear from my patients is, look, you know, my food never stands me up. My food never yells at me. My food is always there when I need me. So there’s this concept of food addiction. It’s very strong. And I know for you, you have a lot of experience with it and you’ve counseled a lot of people on it. So I’m really curious to dive into this topic today on “food addiction”.

What is it?

Chef AJ

Well, what is it? So I would say that it’s not the best term for a medical diagnosis because I don’t think people like the word addiction or the word addict, because I think it conjures up like some guy, you know, like a heroin addict or something like that. And people don’t like that term. So it’s not a good term in that you can’t really be addicted to food or eating. You would die if you didn’t eat, although people go sometimes 40 days without eating at a supervised one or fasting center.

It’s the addiction to particular foods. And these are foods that are generally high in fat, sugar, and salt. These are processed foods. Things with sugar and flour, could be certain animal products, especially dairy. But you don’t get an addiction to Whole Foods. I always say that nobody goes to Arugula Anonymous meetings. It’s not the problem isn’t with Whole Foods like fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and legumes. And I would argue that the food is not your friend, because if it’s making you fat and sick or both. A good friend wouldn’t do that to you, would they?

So I understand that it can be comforting to eat these foods because these kinds of foods produce more dopamine in the brain. Dopamine is produced whenever you have a pleasurable experience. Food and sex, for example, produce dopamine. Also, all eating stimulates the production of the opening of the brain. But these high fat, high-calorie foods produce more. And people see this is where it becomes like a vicious cycle because if people aren’t exercising and they’re not doing anything to get those feel-good chemicals in their brain, they’re going to be driven to have these good feelings come from a pill, a bottle, a doughnut, those kinds of things.

And that’s why exercise, I think, is really, really important. If you’re struggling with weight or food addictions because you’ll start the day with a blast of those feel-good chemicals in your brain. So it’ll be harder for you to reach for that because it increases your willpower. Number one, daily exercise, especially when done in the morning, but also increases your ability to stick to a healthy eating plan. So they kind of go hand in hand.

But I get it because these foods are very affordable. The foods that people are struggling with. They’re socially acceptable. They’re readily available. These are ultra-processed foods. But the more I learn about them, I realize they are not your friend. Even if you have no struggles with weight or addictions. They’re completely dysregulating your gut microbiome. This I learn from all the doctors I’ve interviewed. They’re not food. They’re drugs. They’re science experiments.

And so the fact that people call processed foods, “foods”. I think we need to lobby to change that because they’re not food. They’re not fit for human consumption. You wouldn’t give them to your pet. You wouldn’t give them. Well, he wouldn’t give them to your small child, but unfortunately, people do, but wouldn’t give it to a baby for sure. So we have to start looking at what is really food. And to me, food comes from a plant not manufactured in a plant.

And it took me forty-three years to understand that because I too was addicted to these foods. And let’s face it, they’re delicious, but so can eating a healthy diet. After a period of time when you get used to it’s called neuroadaptation. At first, this food probably won’t taste very good if you’re eating a lot of sugar, fat, and salt. But over time you can enjoy it as much as the regular diet that you’re eating now. Especially when you see what it does for your brain, for your body.

And, but it’s hard. Listen, we wouldn’t have a 70 percent obesity rate if this wasn’t a difficult problem, trust me. And it’s not just the United States. I hear Mexico is number one now.

Sean Hashmi, MD

Where do you start? So if you’re trying to lose weight. You’ve gone through a few cycles of up, down, up, down. Where do you start? What are some simple tips to say? You know, no matter where you at. 

Excercise, I think it’s such a beautiful thing. And no matter who you are, where you are, you can do it. What are some other things that you tell your clients and your audience?

Chef AJ

Well, the thing I really tell my clients, the ones that are paying me are really serious because the average person will not do this. And they’re going to give me a lot of excuses why it’s too hard. Believe it or not, the first thing I tell people is to clean their environment. What it doesn’t matter what diet you’re going on. But the thing is. If you were an alcoholic and you went to Betty Ford and you were released. Would you go back to the same house that had alcohol in it? Would you say?

Well, but my husband wants to drink, so we have to have it for company. Would you go back to a job as a bartender? I think most people wouldn’t, or at least they would know that they’re there could be dangers in doing that. It’s the same thing with food. See, the problem, Dr. Hashmi, is most people aren’t willing to change their lifestyle. People are willing to go on a diet through a great deal of suffering and deprivation for a short period of time to achieve a short term goal. Especially if they have a wedding or a reunion to go to, or maybe their doctor threatens to put them on medication.

The problem with that is if what you’re doing isn’t sustainable. It won’t be permanent. So you have to think about the fact that when you change your lifestyle permanently. The weight comes off as a result of trying to get healthy. And so, I tell people that they need to clean their environment because this is something I listen to. When I was obese 10 years ago when I went to the North Health Center.

One of the first things that Dr. Doug Lyle, the psychologist, said there, and I remember writing it down on a pad, he said, we must work harder on our environment than we do ourselves. So whatever those problematic foods are, it’s not like you say. Well, I’m never going to have chips again or french fries or coke. You might. I don’t know. But you don’t want it in your house. You want to make it difficult to do the wrong thing and easy to do the right thing.

And yes, there are people that are so addicted to food that if in a clean environment they will drive a 7-Eleven at midnight, but most people won’t. Because when most people are tired, especially if they’re living somewhere where it’s snowy and cold, most people won’t. And I remember I recently just interviewed Dr. Greger for the truth about weight loss, and he talked about the importance of the environment. Because if you have a clean environment, not an empty environment, not mother hover with bare cover. But if you have an environment that does not have any non-compliant food, whatever that is for your plan, and it’s full of healthy food that’s already prepared.

Guess what? When you’re hungry, you’ll eat it. Your kids will eat it. People say, Oh, my kids are so picky. Your kid is only picky because you fed them crap and because you give them a choice. Now, sure, there’s going to be some kids on the spectrum. There are a few kids where it’s not possible. But every pediatrician I’ve interviewed said a child will not starve themselves to death. And when you offer them something after dinner because they didn’t eat their dinner, you’re just reinforcing that.

And so, again, a clean environment goes a long way to solving this problem because you’re genetically hardwired to prefer the most concentrated source of calories for survival. That’s just your brain. That’s nothing. The fact that you love all this rich crap, means your brain is working the way nature intended.

So whenever there’s rich food in the environment, remember, the environment is wherever you are. So when you’re at work, that’s your environment. When you’re on vacation, that’s your environment. And you can’t control every environment, obviously, and then be possible. You go to the pet store these days to buy a leash and there’s candy at the register. The last time I checked, no dogs ate chocolate. It’s toxic to dogs. Hardware store, candy at the register.

Michael’s craft store has candy at the register. Joann fabric, candy at the register. The hospital, I used to volunteer it before covid. Not only candy at the gift shop and in the cafeteria but the vending machine in the parking lot, because we all know we can’t walk from our car to the front desk without a Red Bull. So the thing is, you’re not able to control those environments, but you can’t control what’s in your house. And I already hear people saying, well, I can’t because of my kids and my husband like this food.

Well, it’s not good for them whether they’re overweight or not. But you have to come to some kind of agreement or negotiation where at least you don’t interact with those foods. And what some people do is they get like food saves, they get separate refrigerators. A lot of times the husband and the children or it could be the wife, it seems to be is usually the husband is just as addicted to these foods. Either they’re addicts, too. Whether they admit it or not.

I’ve been told by health professionals that are truly loving family member will support someone in recovery. So you have to work hard on negotiating a clean environment because willpower is only going to get you so far on your diet. The minute you have a car accident or a bad day at work. Somebody gets sick. You’re going to eat it. And I remember one of my favorite stories from a client named Melanie. And I remember because when I did this program in LA, all my work is online, but it’s to do in-person programs.

And I used to actually go to the house to do an inspection, right. At least for the period of the three weeks of the program. They had so everything out or put it in a trash bag. Let me take it out. And I remember she had some See’s candy and I said, what is this? She goes, Oh, it’s my husband’s. I go with this candy in the house. And she goes, Well, don’t worry, I don’t like that flavor.

Plus, it’s dark chocolate. I don’t like dark chocolate. Only milk, chocolate. Well, guess what happened. There was a bad day.  I remember her dog got really sick and was diagnosed with cancer. She ate it all. She didn’t like the flavor. Doesn’t matter. You get just as much dopamine from a flavor you don’t like as a flavor you do like. It cannot be in the house. I have a saying, “if it’s in your house, it’s in your mouth.”

It’s not a question of if you will eat it when, but that’s the best I got. A clean environment goes a long way, trust me.

Sean Hashmi, MD

You know, when I used to be a personal trainer, I remember one of the things I would always tell my clients is if you’re starting exercise, you want to make things as easy as possible. Get your shoes right next to your bed, get everything ready. So when you wake up, there are no excuses. And on the opposite front is exactly what you talk about. The stuff that you’re trying to change, make it so it’s harder to get to.

The harder it is to get to, the more you have to go through those steps. And that’s where your willpower to go after that stuff will actually wear you out. That’s fascinating.

Chef AJ

It’s like you want the easy choice. The healthy choice to be the easy choice and the unhealthy choice to be the difficult choice. But now we live in a world where it’s the opposite, the unhealthy choices on every single corner with a fast-food restaurant or 7-Eleven. And you think with the pandemic, a lot of people actually did well because they weren’t eating at restaurants.

But then they found the restaurants were delivered right to their house, which kind of made it even worse. And the thing I have to mention is it’s not just a question of cleaning the environment. So it’s better you’ve got to put the healthy food in and it’s got to be ready. You can’t just have a whole bunch of vegetables in your refrigerator. You got to have them cut up for a salad. And the thing with kids is kids are just as lazy as grown-ups.

And I have seen kids with parents like they’ll put fruit like food on the counter and the kid won’t eat it. But if the parent goes the extra mile, takes one of those things and cuts the apple, and then puts it out. And especially if there’s like a dip, you know. The kids leave it because we’re just basically big kids. You know. The kid may not munch on a carrot, but you get baby organic carrots and have some hummus or guacamole.

All of a sudden they’ll eat it. Kids like small things and they like things that they can dip. So, yeah.

Sean Hashmi, MD

So you have so many fantastic recipes for people watching this. What would you say? Where’s the best place for them to start on their journey to making healthier foods?

Chef AJ

Yeah, I think YouTube channel, not all of it now. It’s a lot of interviews, so that’s a little bit harder to find some of the recipes. But there are a lot. But like I said, I have lots of those free on YouTube and books. The thing is, is I like to teach people eventually that they don’t need recipes, they need ingredients and they need spices that they love and ingredients that they love. So I think one of the best ways for people to eat and people have called this Monk Bowls or Buddha  Bowls.

But if you think of this idea of a bowl, we have restaurants now and they’ve probably existed before, but I never paid attention to them. They’re called Pokey bowl or Pokey restaurants. And the idea is you customize it with the ingredients you love. So there might be 20 different vegetables and six different kinds of fruits and three different kinds of grains and ten different kinds of greens. And as you order, you take what you want.

And I think eating that way at home is one of the cheapest and most delicious and most versatile. Because then you got this one kid. Well, I don’t like green peas and I don’t like red bell pepper. The idea is to have ingredients. So you have a bowl or it could be a plate. But things seem to stay better in a bowl and you cook up a bunch of starch and that could be any kind of grain, quinoa, one Brown rice, Oat rolls, whatever you like, and could be beans.

It could be a combination. I recommend people doing both. And then you have a wide variety of fruits and vegetables, fresh herbs and then different kinds of either salad dressings or sauces. I use something called California balsamic vinegar that comes in a bunch of different flavors and then potatoes.  By the way, potatoes can be the base. Potatoes or sweet potatoes, stuffed potato meal where people can put in some corn, some beans, corn, and beans. Also guacamole, kids especially love!

It’s kind of like the idea of a salad bar, but with more than just lettuces and vegetables. We’re talking a starch and they can be so delicious at one point a while that Whole Foods actually had this in one of their stores. And it was my favorite place to eat because I could pick you butternut squash and my husband could pick Tofu. And it was so fun because it never was the same way twice.

Sean Hashmi, MD

Wow, that’s fascinating. You know, and that’s why I’m listening to you is so amazing is you take complex concepts and you make them so simple  And that’s the stuff that people can go home and do right now.

Chef AJ

OK, so I used to live next door to Trader Joe’s for most of my life in Los Angeles. And now I live 20 minutes away from a Trader Joe’s. So I can’t just walk there every day like I used to, but for example. OK, so one of the meals that I make, like when I’m sometimes I’m just really in a hurry and I’m just looking for calories. And it’s just really actually quite delicious. Trader Joe’s sells organic rice and quinoa in little bags that go in the freezer.

They take three minutes to microwave. Trader Joe’s also sells broccoli, which happens to be my favorite vegetable, organic, a 12-ounce bag that takes four minutes to microwave. I use something called a pampered chef steamer. So three minutes plus four minutes to seven minutes. It’s like rice and broccoli. Well, yeah, not so great. But then what I do is I take some green onions, which I always have, and cut them up and now it’s a little better.

And I take about a quarter cup of golden raisins and a little bit of California balsamic vinegar. And now I’ve got like this curried broccoli rice that it’s actually really good. And I look forward to it, but it took me seven minutes to make it so it doesn’t have to be complicated. The problem isn’t so much the cost or the amount of time. The problem is because I really believe that people are so addicted to sugar and salt. That the kind of simple meal that I’m recommending to people, they don’t taste good at first.

And that’s the biggest challenge. That’s why some people go to a place like the fasting escape or the TrueNorth Health Center, and they do what’s called a medically supervised water fast. It doesn’t mean they’re fasting for people that are really sick for 40 days, but sometimes for three days or maybe a week. But what happens is like at least sensitize your taste nerves so that when you because you’re not having sugar and salt and not having any food, so that when they start with feeding you something like steamed zucchini. It tastes amazing.

And that’s the problem, is that the people have eaten so much junk for so long that this healthy whole natural food doesn’t taste good. I didn’t eat fruits until I was forty-three because it’s like who would eat a strawberry? Eww…That’s not sweet. But now sometimes there’s certain fruit. Like for example, there’s an apple that they sell and it’s like it’s almost too sweet for me, now. Sometimes fruit is just really too sweet. So that’s the thing about this process of neuro-adaptation.

It’s hard for people, especially if they’re in a clean environment. Everybody else is eating crap for this kind of food to taste good. So you need to use a little salt at the beginning. You need to lose some richer don’t use oil, but you could use more high-fat foods like avocado, like peanut sauces that are plant-based, made from the whole fat instead of the oil. So there are ways to kind of transition more slowly for people.

But the thing is…Look, let me put it this way. Dr. Joel Fuhrman, for example, never been overweight. We pretty close to the same if it was punishment. Do you think people like him or Dr. Alan Goldhammer could be doing this for 40 years? I promise you, it may not look like it to you right now, but we get as much pleasure from our food as you do. Maybe we get more because we’re actually eating food that loves us, that nourishes us, body, mind, and spirit.

It didn’t taste good at first. Of course, you can’t go from coke Slurpee to kale. I mean, you can, but it takes some transitioning. And that’s the thing. People want results fast rather than results that will last. And there is going to be a period of time that you’re not going to love the food.

You may not like it, but the more you do it, the more you will like it. And then when you see how you look and feel, you’re going to end up loving it. Nobody could do it if it wasn’t sustainable. But it is. And also think about it. I don’t know anybody that doesn’t like potatoes or sweet potatoes, one or the other. And there are machines now like the called air-fryers and you can take a sweet potato or a potato.

You put in this machine and you’ve got like French fries that are better than the soggy salty once you get at other places and they’re crisp and I don’t know anybody that doesn’t like air-fryer. You can dip them in barbecue sauce or whatever you want. There is a way to make healthy food delicious. That’s why when we were having conferences back in the day, they were still beneficial because the food was prepared the way we recommend and people could say, hey, this is like the McDougall program.

It’s like, hey, this is really good, you know? So, yeah, it just takes a while for people to get used to the taste if they’re not used to it.

Sean Hashmi, MD

I got to make a confession. I have an air-fryer. And the only reason I got it is sweet potato fries is my weakness.

Chef AJ

Ahh, those are the best!

Sean Hashmi ,MD

Ahh…It’s just so good.

Chef AJ

I have a little tool that was sixty-nine dollars. Where it cuts them in the perfect fry shape.

Yeah. It’s so because… I don’t know. I’m not a very good cutter.

Sean Hashmi, MD

I still have a knife.

Chef AJ

Is great if you could. Sweet potatoes can be tough though sometimes you know. You want to know a great, you want to try. My grandmother had this word for food. She called it a taste thrill. So, and I discovered this once when I was flying. And when you fly your food sometimes just gets weird at high altitude, bananas go bad. And potatoes get all mushy.

So I came back and like my sweet potato, which was cook was just it was not looking so good. And I thought I can’t throw it away so I put it in the fridge. And what would happen if I put it in the fryer and I discovered that I don’t really understand this thing about resistant starch that increases when you chilled cooked potatoes. But take your potato, whatever it is. I find this is really delicious with the hand of yam or the Japanese sweet potato.

You cook it generally. I roast it because roasting brings out more of the natural sugars than steaming or microwaving. Then, I chill it. And then the next day I slice it in half and then I take my hand and I press it down. So I call it sweet potato toast. And then I air-fry it and it’s like mind-blowing. I mean it’s so good! It’s so good. And I think I have a recipe for them.

And you called sweet potato toast and you just press it after it’s been chilled turned up and then air fry it like four hundred for twenty to thirty minutes depending on the size. And it’s so crispy. Almost tastes like marshmallows. It’s so good. I’m not kidding. Yeah.

Sean Hashmi, MD

You know the first thing I’m going to do after this interview is.

Chef AJ

Let me know how you like.

Sean Hashmi, MD

That’s literally the first thing I do.  I’ll let you know.

Chef AJ

And sometimes I’ll dip it. Like I had. Like the other day, I had red lentil chili. I didn’t even know it was sweet. I dipped in that. And then I was using that like as my spoon because it was like a long one. Like, this is good stuff. But air fryers are great. And air-fryers are great to people that heat vegetables too, because when you roast vegs. It doesn’t necessary to be an air-fryer.  Just roasting vegetables, brings out again the natural sugars, the caramelization, and they make them more palatable than just steaming or microwaving them or putting a marinade on.

Like if people think, oh, I can’t have one without oil. No, you can take balsamic vinegar and mustard and coat them and then air-fry them or roast them and they’re really good. You really the sooner you’ll learn to love vegetables, the easier this will be, I promise.

Sean Hashmi, MD

Wow. I am truly fascinated and excited. So, I’m going to ask you a little bit of a difficult topic. And the reason is, is I get a lot of patients who come to me and they have severe kidney disease and I talk to them about changing their lifestyle. And we start with the nutrition portion and we talk about how powerful a plant-based diet is when it comes to kidney disease. But they always tell me, well, you know, that sounds really tough.

And now I’m going to make one small change. And then I say, OK, you know. This is what I need. Fine. Three months later, they come back and they say, yeah, you know, I cut down from eating meat twelve times a week to eleven times a week. And so I’m sitting there and the difficulty that I have is having done this now since two thousand. The issues I run into, I can predict what’s going to happen to them.

And the saddest part is. I’ve had people on their deathbed in the hospital where they’ve said to me, you know, Doc, “I should have listened to you”. I’ve never had a patient on their deathbed say, oh, you know, “I was right and doctors were totally wrong”. Every single one of them that’s ever talked to me has always said, “I wish I’ve listened to you”. And this concept of moderation and trying to slow things down, it’s an interesting fallacy that we come up with.

But it hurts me because when I see all my patients suffer and I know they have to make significant changes, but then there’s this concept that if I just make a small change, that’s good enough. What do you think about this concept of moderation?

Chef AJ

I think it’s a lie. I think Dr. Esselstyn calls it the myth of moderation.

Moderation…it does not work in the world.

If it didn’t, we wouldn’t have the obese population. The thing is, if you couldn’t have been moderate, you would have been moderate and you wouldn’t have had this disease. There are people probably that can drink alcohol moderately and they are the people that we don’t call alcoholics. But when you’re an alcoholic you can’t drink moderately. I think that when somebody has an addiction, the only thing that works is abstinence and I think that sometimes small changes incrementally done over time can lead to positive effects.

But, for example, for the person cutting meat from 12 to 11 times, that’s like somebody diagnosed with lung cancer going from four packs a day to three packs a day. Once you have a diagnosable disease like that, I don’t think moderation will work for you anymore. And that’s how you know, that the addiction is so strong that people cannot change their behavior. You know, maybe if you had a patient that actually did listen to you and recover, that would be the one to talk to the patient, you know, because it’s like you’re from the doctor’s orders, you know, he’s healthy.

But hearing it from somebody that was in their shoes and said, hey, I was on death’s door and I listened to Dr. Hashmi and now I’m not on dialysis. Or what you know. I’ve known people with stage four kidney disease. They’re better now. Like they’re doctors. Like, I don’t know what you did, but keep doing it. So there is hope and there’s a possibility. But it’s hard because it’s an addiction. Food is an addiction for some.

If it wasn’t, then why wouldn’t they do it? I bet you if you told that patient, listen, stop eating okra, you’re going to be fine. They could do that. One hundred percent.

Sean Hashmi, MD

You know, it’s a it’s a fascinating phenomenon. And, you know, it’s so hard because just like, you know, you deal with your clients. I get to know my patients. They become a part of my family. And as I see them go down and then the day comes where I have to say goodbye to them. It’s heartbreaking. And the hardest thing is. One of the things I never want to be invited to is funerals.

And when I do get invited to it. It is so hard for me to go.

Chef AJ

Hard knowing that if this is largely preventable, you know. And it’s mostly reversible. We live in a world that does not understand that food is medicine and that most doctors unless they’ve gone to some lengths like you or Dr. Lawenda, get almost no medical school training in nutrition. And people just don’t understand this concept that food is the most powerful medicine or the most powerful poison.

And they don’t see it that way. It’s the culture. Well, you know, you got to have protein, the meat, as you know. It’s just unless they’ve learned it from somewhere or maybe seen a movie like Game Changers or Forks over Knives or has somebody in their family, that’s if one of us crazy vegan. They’re not even exposed to this message.

Sean Hashmi, MD

It’s so true. You know, I recommend Forks over Knives to so many people simply because they feel like it’s one of the best ways for us to be able to get that message across. Sometimes as physicians talking. It’s hard you know. There’s not that relatability that somehow they look at you and say you’re not the average person. We are! We all have these struggles we go through in life. So let me ask you to kind of bring all of this stuff together.

And this has been such a fascinating interview today. But if you have to say three things and this is putting you on the spot, but because I admire you so much and I value your opinion. What would you say are the three most important takeaways? The people listening today should really say? These are the three things that I got to start with. Because you’ve got like three million.

Chef AJ

You know, it’s funny. The first thing that came to my mind is be kind to animals.

And when you’re kind of animals.  You don’t eat them! Number one, right? You don’t eat their secretions like their milk. And you don’t eat their menstrual cycle like their eggs. So honestly, being kind to animals, that goes a long way just in general. I mean, be kind to people, too. But in general, we don’t have a problem with people eating people. Is that I know of. Thank goodness, right? Eat more vegetables.

Just you know, even if you can’t be one hundred percent, instead of thinking about deprivation, what you have to give up to find a way to eat vegetables. Even if it’s a green smoothie. I don’t care at the beginning. You’ve got to get the green in somehow. That’s going to make it so much better. It’s going to dilute the overall caloric density of your meals. It’s going to give you the vital nutrients you need. It’s going to make your skin look beautiful.

It’s going to help if you have heart disease. Produce nitric oxide. Just find ways to eat vegetables. And here’s the thing. If you don’t like it, it doesn’t matter. You’re grown up. You don’t have to like it. You just have to do it. That’s what I say to myself every morning when it’s like I’m cold in the morning, it’s really cold. Do I really want to get out of bed and spinning? And then I hear the voice of John, the trainer saying, look, you’re an adult.

You don’t have to like it. You just have to do it. The thing is, is if you do it, you will feel so much better. And then the third thing is just to give yourself the gift of a clean environment. Find a way to. If you, listen, if you live alone, there’s no excuse. If you live alone. I’m sorry, there’s no excuse. But if you live with other people, find a way to negotiate that.

Just say, for my birthday for Christmas, what I want is three weeks of a clean environment. Again, what people don’t understand is having a clean environment doesn’t mean that they can’t go out and eat the crap. They just can’t eat it in front of you. That’s all, so that’s what I would say and see how it goes or is try for three weeks. See how you feel.

Sean Hashmi, MD

I love it.  I love it. Once again, simple, effective, and easily doable. So, the best way to find you would be your YouTube channel?

Chef AJ

Yeah, I can’t promise it’ll be forever. And my goal is to do it every day for a year. But I go live every day at 11 a.m. Pacific Time on YouTube and we have interesting guests. We’ve had Dr. Hashmi on. We’ve got it’s not always a doctor. Sometimes it’s a chef doing a cooking demo and it could be just as interesting.

My thing is, people that are doing great things in the world that I think you should know about. So, I actually interviewed Elaine LaLane. She wasn’t a vegan, but she was one of my favorite guests, the wife of Jack Lalane. Ninety-seven years old. She gets up and lifts weights every day. So she doesn’t have an excuse. She’s 97, or maybe she’s ninety-four. But anyway, the point is,  I don’t even do that, you know.

Sean Hashmi, MD

That’s amazing. And I’ll put the links for YouTube, Facebook, and Instagram. I also know you have some books. I saw them on Amazon.

Chef AJ

This is my book. This is if people are trying to lose weight. These are great recipes. But this one, which actually was written by Glenn Mercer, I did the recipes for these. These are really easy recipes, really easy with. And Unprocessed. It’s in the other room.

Sean Hashmi, MD

Fantastic. I’ll put the links to them. I got to tell you, you know, I’m honor.

Chef AJ

Thank you. Thank you, man. I think it’s great what you guys are doing. I mean, if anybody is going to get it, it’s going to be Kaiser for sure, you know. Because that’s the model that we need. Let’s be proactive instead of, you know, that’s the way.

Sean Hashmi, MD

Awesome as always.

Thank you for the amazing work you’re doing. I see the comments on YouTube and I’m like wow. You’re touching so many lives every single day. So please, instead of a year, make it two.

Chef AJ

You know, I might not be able to keep up the seven day a week schedule, but I definitely want to continue it because there are so many people left that still want to be interviewed and they always want the guests always want to come back. So it’s it’s been really rewarding.

Sean Hashmi, MD

Well, we are delighted to have you. We can’t wait to have you back on again. Thank you. And just bless you for all the work you’re doing. My wife and I are big believers in karma, and I truly believe what you put out there, you get back. So what you putting out there is outstanding. And I’m sure it’s all coming back to you and it will continue to come back to you.

Chef AJ

Oh, that’s so kind. Thank you, Dr. Hashmi. Thank you!


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Sean Hashmi MD
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