Chef Rocco DiSpirito is probably best known for controversial reality show The Restaurant, which followed the launch of ill-fated eaterie Rocco’s on 22nd in New York's Flatiron District. Viewers who watched the second season had an inside look at the power struggles that can erupt between chefs and investors.
The restaurant was popular but not profitable. By the end of the debacle, financier Jeffrey Chodorow successfully obtained an injunction barring DiSpirito from his namesake restaurant. Rocco’s On 22nd closed in 2004 and Chodorow’s follow-up, a Brazilian restaurant called Caviar & Banana, didn’t succeed, either.
The dispute left DiSpirito without a restaurant. However, it also left the chef with time to turn his focus inward and take a hard look at his life. “I’d been a lifelong paranoid hypochondriac. The doctor always made fun of me when I went to see him but then he said, ‘Congratulations. You finally have something to worry about. I’ve checked your blood over and over. It doesn’t look good and I’m really worried about you. I’m going to need you to take all of these prescription medicines.’ There were three to start with and when he went down the list of side effects and got to ‘impotence,’ I said, ‘Hold on one minute! Can we do something else?’”
The “something else” was a big change in diet and lifestyle. “I don’t know what happened, but I decided for the first time in my life to do the smart thing,” DiSpirito said. “I had some time on my hands. I wasn’t running a restaurant, so I started to slowly experiment with different foods and exercise. I unwittingly signed up for a triathlon. A different doctor who had been helping me with back issues asked me to help raise money for his favorite charity and it turned out to be a triathlon.”
DiSpirito only had six months to train for the feat—a huge challenge for someone who, at the time, could barely walk a mile. He still managed to succeed. “I was second-to-last, but I still finished it,” he said. Six months later, he signed up for an Ironman competition.
The experiences led him to some new realizations. “During that year of eating a lot of food—because triathlons require a lot of energy—I realized I could eat foods that were delicious, that had a lot of nutritional density, that didn’t have the wrong kind of calories and not feel deprived at all,” he explained. (He's clearly done something right. Compare the photo above to one taken in 2010.)
He used what he had learned to write his first book, Now Eat This, a collection of lightened-up comfort food recipes. It wasn’t an easy sell to publishers, who didn’t think of DiSpirito as “the healthy guy.” However, when it went on sale, it instantly took the number one spot on the bestseller lists. The success proved to DiSpirito that the public accepted the change in his culinary point of view and were still interested in what he had to say.
He's now authored nine books and his point of view has continued to evolve. That's reflected in his current book, Cook Your Butt Off! He now completely eschews processed foods and artificial sweeteners. “I don’t use any of that stuff and I’m also mostly gluten-free and dairy free,” he says.
He has another book on the way. This one focuses on the whole food lifestyle and is entitled The Negative Calorie Diet. It goes on sale at the end of December. “In this new book, I don’t ask you to count calories at all,” he says. “I just ask you to focus on foods that you can eat as much as you want of: apples, berries, lean meats, lots of fish. This is where America is at. They just want to know what to eat and to stop counting calories and worrying about everything they put in their mouths.” The book is about seventy percent meatless recipes.
DiSpirito shared five diet improvements that anyone can start using immediately:
5. No diet soda. “It’s one of the worst things you can consume. It creates a huge amount of microbiota in your gut, which will then cause all kind of other problems, like inflammation and metabolic syndrome. If you ever felt like you have brain fog, unexplained acne, chronic fatigue, IBS or indigestion that you can’t explain in any other way, there’s probably too much yeast in your gut. You need to rebalance your gut bacteria. Candida, the yeast that creates the imbalance, loves artificial sweeteners even more than it loves sugar.”
4. Yes to yogurt. DiSpirito says to rebalance your gut bacteria, take probiotics, either as a supplement or as part of foods like yogurt and kaffir.
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3. Get rid of sugar. DiSpirito compares getting rid of sugar to getting rid of a “friend” who wasn’t actually much of a friend at all. “When you get rid of it, you’re going to be very happy and it’s going to feel like a ton of bricks has been lifted off your shoulders. Sugar is highly addictive. Some doctors say it’s eight times more addictive than Class II narcotics. You’ve got to stop eating sugar. It, not fat, leads to obesity.”
2. Eat healthy fats. The ones he recommends are coconut, avocado, walnut and almond oils.
1. Add fiber where you can. DiSpirito makes breads and pasta with fiber and egg whites. He's including recipes on how to do that in The Negative Calorie Diet.
He emphasizes that getting healthy doesn’t mean a life of deprivation and that he's provided plenty of resources. “I spent 10 years figuring out how to make food healthy and delicious and it’s all out there in many books and free videos all over the Internet. I’ve done the work for people and they should take advantage of it.”