Chris Avtges, 42, keeps a running list on his phone he calls “Stupid Things I Can Do Now That I Lost the Weight.”
Some of the items on the list may seem mundane, things the average person might take for granted, but they are small triumphs nonetheless. Being able to hop on an airplane without asking for a seatbelt extension. Changing his video game avatar from a large, round guy to a fit, thin one. Following his two children up the sledding hill without gasping for breath.
And then, of course, there are the major things: namely, appearing on a popular Food Network reality cooking show. On May 30, Chris, a food service director from Ellington, Conn., was a competitor on a special weight-loss episode of Chopped, which challenges chefs to a cook-off using surprise—and often odd—ingredients. While he didn’t take home the $10,000 prize, simply competing was a coup for a guy whose 140-pound weight loss gave him a whole new perspective on life.
Chris’s weight loss journey began in 2010. When his son Hunter, 10, was diagnosed with Celiac disease, Chris was forced to reevaluate his “fat is flavor” approach to cooking. “I started to become more aware of what I was putting into our food,” Chris says. “I essentially retrained myself how to cook, finding ways to add flavor without adding fat.”
Then, in 2011, Chris was laid off from his job as a food service director in a public school district in Massachusetts, leaving him with more downtime than ever before. “I sat around for a few weeks, thinking ‘woe is me,’” Chris recalls. “Then my wife and I decided to join the local YMCA.”
After a few weeks of exercising and tracking meals on the weight-loss app Lose It!, Chris and his wife, Tabatha, started seeing results. “From day one, we were in it together,” Chris says. “It was a family affair.”
Tabatha has multiple sclerosis (MS), a nervous system disease that affects the brain and spinal cord. Since adopting a healthier lifestyle, she has seen a miraculous turnaround in her symptoms. “Prior to this change, her MS was managing her, whereas now she is managing her MS,” says Chris. “Her good days are much more frequent than her bad days. It used to be the other way around.”
In many ways, participating on Chopped was the capstone of Chris’s weight-loss journey. Although eliminated in the second round, Chris left the competition with a renewed sense of confidence and self-worth. “For the longest time, being overweight, I struggled with my self-confidence,” he says. “Being on the show has pushed me in a direction I could have not imagined myself taking. People have been coming up and saying my wife and I are inspirational. The more you hear that, the more you start to believe that. That’s worth more than winning.”
Chris hopes his story can inspire fellow Americans to transform their lives. “Going into the show, my first goal was to win, but my second goal was to have a good time and take the opportunity to get my story out—to show that the average stereotypical obese American, with some effort and determination, can turn their health around,” he says.
Below, Chris shares his top strategies to add flavor without adding fat:
- Use fresh herbs and boldly flavored vinegars for marinades.
- Substitute yogurt for or cream or milk when making mashed potatoes or sweet potatoes.
- “Grill, grill, grill!!!!!” he says.
- Instead of thick heavy sauces, use seasoned homemade broths. “I use vegetable base and add enhancements such as lemon grass and ginger to build flavor,” Chris says.
- Swap ground turkey or chicken for beef in burgers or meatloaf, adding fresh herbs to lean meats to boost flavor. “For meat loaf, I use gluten-free oats instead of breadcrumbs as a binder,” Chris adds.
- “Don’t eat family style,” he says. “Pre-plate and portion your family meals.”