Brett Hoebel is no stranger to weight-loss reality shows—the personal trainer advised contestants on The Biggest Loser’s 11th season. But Fat Chef, the Food Network’s documentary series following 12 culinary professionals struggling to adapt a healthier lifestyle, provided a unique set of challenges. Instead of being secluded on “The Ranch” with few distractions, the chefs are trying to make major changes while juggling their day-to-day responsibilities, stresses and temptations.
“They’re addicted to food and they’re around food 24-7,” Hoebel says. “We have a temptation challenge on The Biggest Loser, but that’s something the chefs are dealing with every day.”
We talked to Brett about how he helps the chefs transform their philosophies toward food, and his tips for being a fit foodie.
Spry: What was your approach to helping the chefs adapt their lifestyles?
Brett: I wanted to change their values around food and exercise and self-worth. If you don’t do that, all these changes they have to make are just a pain in the butt and they’ll never give 100 percent. I told them, ‘When the cameras are gone and the film crew is not here and I’m not here, the one person you have to depend on is you.’ We just wrapped the show recently, and it was tough saying goodbye. I want to make sure they’re in good hands. But I saw the light go on, saw the emotional change in them.
Spry: Which values did you find the most difficult to change?
Brett: One is the relationship that they have toward food. For me, you can be happy and celebrate with food but food doesn’t equal happiness. I try to teach all these people that food is fuel. Your family, your hobbies, that’s happiness—not food. If you equate happiness with your food, you’re fighting an uphill battle. They’re all emotional eaters. It’s trying to break that cycle, and to do that, they have to have other positive things going on.
Another was helping them understand that you are what you eat. It’s not just about feeling good in the moment with food. What you eat, how you feel, how you sleep and work out are all connected. You have to look at how your body physically responds to food.
Spry: What were the hardest ingredients for the chefs to give up or cut back on?
Brett: They all consumed way too much sugar. One of the first steps was to eliminate “the white devil”—white sugar, white flour, white milk, white rice, white salt. The diet I put them on initially was similar to a caveman diet. I said, ‘If it was here 1,000 years ago, you can eat it.’ There wasn’t a bagel bush or a cracker tree back then! For the average person, it may seem radical, but cutting back on processed foods was important.
Some of the substitutions I had them make for those foods were natural cane sugar, brown or wild rice, coconut or almond milk, and sea salt. I also suggested cooking with coconut oil or olive oil, and reducing the amount they use. You don’t need 120 calories worth of oil to get those greens nice and crisp.
Spry: Was it easier to work with chefs in some ways because they know so much about food and cooking already?
Brett: A very funny thing I found is that a lot of chefs had no idea how many calories they were eating in a day. In general, they didn’t know much about calories—they’re not taught that in culinary school. Sometimes after a workout I’d bring over a food they liked, like a bag of M&Ms, and show them how the number of calories compared to what they’d burned during the workout. They’d say, “Are you kidding me?”
But one thing they understand is flavor profiles. They came up with extraordinary recipes after I’d given them some guidelines, like that their meals should take 30 minutes or less and use no more than 5 ingredients. I said, ‘I want you to take your most favorite dessert, decadent meal and transform it,’ and they did.
Spry: What other calorie-cutting swaps do you suggest for foodies?
Brett: One of my favorite substitutions is Greek yogurt instead of heavy cream. You can still make a great ricotta or vodka penne with yogurt—for about a quarter of the calories. I also love to puree cauliflower with yogurt. It tastes just like mashed potatoes—no one will know the difference! You can substitute almond milk for a lot of cream, too.
Mrs. Dash makes every type of seasoning with no sodium. There’s a Cajun blend, all kinds of seasonings for vegetables and meat.
Instead of sugar, I like Stevia, which is natural. You can even bake with it. But dates are good for baking because they add that gooey consistency.
Spry: Do you have a guilty pleasure food that you’ve made over?
Brett:I love peanut butter and jelly. So I’ll make it with sprouted, non-gluten bread, almond butter flavored with maple syrup, and raspberries mashed with a little Stevia. I’ll even do a triple decker—I admit it! It’s not low-calorie, but it’s something I treat myself to.