Diet food has a bad rep. It conjures up images of chewing on cardboard-like rice cakes and low-fat packet soups packed with preservatives, while you dream of a comforting bowl of pasta and battle cravings for anything that so much as resembles dessert.
Enter Tom Kerridge. He not only runs the UK’s only pub with two Michelin stars (The Hand And Flowers in Marlow), but he knows a thing or two about weight loss – having shed a staggering 12 stone himself. Now back with a second diet book, Lose Weight For Good, and accompanying BBC programme, he’s determined to demonstrate that calorie-controlled meals can be delicious – and easy to whip up at home.
And who better to create a weight-loss plan that you actually want to stick to, than someone who loves really, really loves food?
What’s the new book about?
“I looked at lower-calorie recipes and I found them incredibly depressing, boring and flavourless,” Wiltshire-born Tom, 44, explains. “I thought, ‘Well no wonder so many people yo-yo on diets, they’re not enjoying what they’re eating’.”
He describes his new book as a “celebration of great-tasting food”, with an emphasis on recipes that use everyday ingredients and come in portions big enough to fill you up. It’s full of nutritious but hearty recipes, and some that might surprise you, like spicy lamb burgers, pork samosa pie, pizza with parma ham and mozzarella, and coffee and chocolate custard pots.
Pastry, red meat and puddings might not be classic health-book fodder, but pub grub is what he’s famous for – and it really wouldn’t be a Tom Kerridge book without a pie.
The accompanying TV show, currently on BBC Two, follows a group of 13 dieters on their mission to achieve steady but lasting weight loss with Tom’s recipes. “Seeing them actually enjoying what they’re eating has been the biggest thing for me,” says the chef.
How did Tom lose his weight?
Alongside a typically hectic lifestyle, being in the restaurant business and constantly around food saw Tom’s weight creep up to 30 stone. “I worked very hard, I spent a lot of time in other people’s restaurants, a lot of time labouring in the kitchen. I’d go home late and have cheese on toast,” he recalls. “It was the same trap everyone else falls into, but I suppose my lifestyle made it even more extreme.”
Approaching 40 made him evaluate his health. “I thought, ‘I’ve achieved where I am in life, but where am I going moving forward? OK, maybe I won’t spend the next 40 years doing what I’m doing…’.”
It was January 2013 when the dad-of-one gave up booze and devised his own weight-loss plan, later coined ‘The Dopamine Diet’, which was turned into a bestselling book. It took him to just under 18 stone, mainly by cutting down on carbohydrates.
“The hardest part was the first six to eight weeks of getting into the mindset and changing the habitual routines. Like when I’d normally have cheese on toast or when I’d usually go to the pub – that’s the bit where you’ve got to be really strong-willed,” he recalls.
He recognised that a low-carb diet isn’t for everybody, however: “When I told people I lost weight by having no alcohol, no pasta, no bread… there was a massive look of disappointment on their faces!” So he set out to create a “broader reaching” diet, in line with the NHS 12 week weight-loss plan.
“The reason the Dopamine Diet worked for me was that I thoroughly enjoyed what I was eating – as it’s all about the flavour,” says Tom. “I thought, ‘Surely I can put that ethos of a celebration of food into lower-calorie cooking’.”
Who’s the new book best for?
One of the challenges for anyone trying to what their diet at the start of the year is finding the time to prepare healthy meals, and the inclination to learn new dishes.
“It’s all well and good everybody saying they’re a great cook, but sometimes you’re a great cook at the weekends when you enjoy doing it, when you’ve got three or four hours to potter about making things and enjoying the process of cooking. But you eat every day,” says Tom.
So the recipes in Lose Weight For Good really are meant to fit into busy lives – the steps are clear and simple, and you don’t need a long list of ingredients.
“If you come home from work at 7 o’clock in the evening, you want to rustle something up in under 20 minutes and you want to know how to do it,” Tom adds. “It’s aimed at being accessible, even for the most amateur of cooks to have a go at making something taste good.”
Can lower-calorie meals still be comfort food?
While changing your diet does involve some self-control, it doesn’t have to mean missing out on all ‘treats’, or enjoying food less. For instance, you can still get your pasty fix with Tom’s chicken and mushroom filo crunch, your late-night kebab hit with his healthy lamb doner alternative, or satisfy a KFC craving with the southern-style chicken with potato salad.
“I think when people are on diets, what they miss the most is desserts and things they feel like they shouldn’t be able to eat,” he says. Although the desserts in the book don’t have the same amount of butter or sugar, and therefore calories, as traditional pudding recipes, they’re still proper puddings.
“There are some fantastic sugar alternatives, fantastic cream alternatives, things that are lower in calories that can help you still produce things that feel a bit more ‘treaty’, that shouldn’t feel like you’re on a diet, but you are,” he says (yes, this includes cheesecake!).
It’s all about using some clever tricks. Some of the recipes include veg-masquerading-as-carb alternatives, like jerk chicken with cauliflower rice ‘n’ peas, chicken with peas and mushrooms and celeriac mash, and turkey ragu with white cabbage linguine. “They make you feel like you’re not missing out on anything,” Tom says. “They hold flavour, they taste nice, they’re mind tricks.”
But the best way to ensure dieters enjoy their food is to pack in the flavour – something Tom’s using his 26 years of experience as a chef to do. “Don’t be scared [of using spice]. Use hot spice gently, have a go with salt, pepper and paprika and fresh herbs – there’s no such thing as too many fresh herbs.”
Essentially, he wants to get people cooking, because there’s no better way to ensure what you’re putting into your body is healthy. But as for sticking to it? “Nobody else can do that for you,” says Tom. “And it doesn’t matter what diet you’re on, you have to make that decision yourself and you have to do it.”
Lose Weight For Good: Full-Flavour Cooking For A Low-Calorie Diet by Tom Kerridge is published by Absolute, priced £22. Available now. The accompanying six-part series continues on BBC Two on Wednesdays.