Published January 19, 2012
A sizzling steak with a side of loaded mashed potatoes. Shrimp wrapped in a fried batter. Decadent chocolate cake – or maybe a slice of cheesecake drizzled in raspberry sauce.
Any of these foods would be enough to send your arteries into shock, but for a chef who spends the majority of his or her day surrounded by such delectables – food can really kill.
When chef Paula Deen announced Tuesday she has type 2 diabetes – the media created a firestorm: Was her Southern-style cooking, typically known for fried fare and high-calories, the reason she got sick?
According to experts, being a chef can be a dangerous job – and not just because of sharp knives and hot surfaces.
Dr. Fred Vagnini, a heart surgeon and medical director of Heart, Diabetes and Weight-Loss Centers of New York, based in Lake Success, N.Y., said he treats many trained chefs – and it's an unhealthy profession.
“Some of them say to me, ‘No one trusts a thin chef,’” Vagnini said. “That’s just another excuse for being fat.”
Vagnini pointed to all the dangers of working in a kitchen all day – chefs have to constantly taste food for flavor, multiple times a day, leading to high-caloric intake. They also use more salt than the average cook, which leads to cravings for more salt – and they don’t stop there.
“Look at restaurateurs – typically, they go out after hours, consume alcohol, which leads to more calories and wanting to eat again,” he added.
This way of living can lead to heart disease, obesity, high cholesterol and diabetes, Vagnini said.
Jeffrey Saad, host of United Tastes of America on the Cooking Channel, agreed.
“It’s like being a skydiver – there’s a chance your chute is not going to open,” he said. “Being a chef becomes a quest to learn and enjoy, and there’s a gluttonous side of it. It means you are constantly cooking and eating to expand your culinary horizons.”
And although it is a rewarding career, Saad said you need to know when to put on the brakes.
“I have never been a calorie counter. Low fat is not something you buy, it’s something you eat, like fruit,” said Saad, author of the upcoming cookbook Jeffrey Saad's Global Kitchen: Recipes Without Borders. “There are days I’ve been incredibly indulgent with foods like steak. I’ve said to my wife, ‘If I don’t wake up, I love you.’”
While the average person consumes between 2,000 and 3,000 calories per day, Saad said there are days he probably consumes 4,000 calories.
“I wouldn’t doubt it,” he said. “The key is moderation and knowing when the party’s over, you need to go to sleep and start the next day.”
For Saad, who is an avid biker and enjoys exercise, this may mean eating more salads and fruits after binging as a way to cleanse his body. He said he knows when he’s consumed too much food – his body will tell him.
And even before Deen’s announcement, the Food Network had plans to air Fat Chefs, a show that “follows 12 successful, passionate food professionals . . .whose jobs in the food world have made them massively overweight and are actually killing them,” according to a press release.
The show, which premieres January 26, will feature these chefs’ attempts to lose weight and change their lifestyle, through the help of nutritionists, therapists and exercise trainers.
Famed restaurateur Joe Bastianich, a judge on FOX's Master Chef said he had to make some lifestyle changes five years ago when he was diagnosed with high cholesterol.
“The notion of eating only when you are hungry isn’t really an option in this profession,” he said. “Like anything else in life, moderation is key – but I am sure for most chefs finding that balance is a daily challenge.”
Bastianich said being a restaurateur is not conducive to healthy diets – and he knew an extreme approach wouldn’t work.
“Managing one’s cholesterol really needs to be approached holistically, and for me, it was a combination of diet, exercise and the right medication.”
He now shares some of his low-cholesterol recipes on the website www.heartinthekitchen.com, which will feature webisodes with advice on healthy cooking and managing cholesterol from Bastianich and Dr. Daniel Wilson, senior medical director at Pfizer and a cardiovascular specialist.
“I run every morning,” added Bastianich, who wrote the upcoming book Restaurant Man. “On the occasion I’m unable to do so, it throws my whole day off. No excuses – you have to make time for it.”