Ever wish you could enjoy your favorite comfort foods and still trim your waistline? Turns out you can! “I’m living proof you can indulge in delicious food while still dropping those extra pounds, getting healthy and becoming stronger,” says Virginia Willis. The former kitchen director for celebrity chefs like Bobby Flay and Martha Stewart and author of Fresh Start: Cooking With Virginia shed 65 pounds doing just that. Her simple substitutions, portion size tracking and other easy tricks take away the guess work of healthy eating — without sacrificing on deliciousness and ease! From crunchy tacos to comforting peanut butter cookies, read on to learn how Virginia Willis’ weight loss reinvigorated her health, plus her best tips for healthy comfort food.
Virginia’s weight loss journey begins
Raised in a food-loving Georgia family, Viriginia attended culinary school in France. For years, her go-to ingredients were “butter, butter, butter and maybe a little cream,” she says. She was fond of big helpings, but it had little to do with physical hunger. “I ate for emotional reasons — because I was happy, sad, anxious, bored. Other times, it was just because what I was cooking tasted so good. Basically, I love to eat!” (Reach for food whenever you’re feeling on edge? Click through for expert tips on how to avoid stress eating.)
Her career took off, and she didn’t worry much about her diet until her 40s, when early menopause hit. As her weight crept up to 232 pounds, “I felt lousy,” recalls Virginia, who eventually tried tracking portions. The tactic worked at first. But when life got stressful, she abandoned her efforts and regained more than 20 pounds. Years ticked by. “I wasn’t happy with how I moved, how I looked, or how I felt,” she says. Then one day, she aggravated an old back injury — and pandemic restrictions meant no surgery or physical therapy. Shaken and in pain, “I went to my computer, printed a list of foods good for back health and stuck it on my fridge.” From there, Willis began to take baby steps that changed everything.
Virginia today: 65 lbs slimmer and pain-free
Thanks to walking and healthful eating, Virginia began noticing the shifts in her body. “Even when I could barely get around the block, it helped my stress,” she shares. Turns out, walking fights inflammation by lowering blood sugar and stress hormones—an effect Virginia saw as she slimmed. “One day, I went up stairs with no pain at all, and it hit me: My body is healing.” It was shrinking, too. (Click through to learn more about walking for weight loss and how it helped two sisters lose over 370 lbs.)
All told, Willis shed 65 pounds. Her back is pain-free. “I just got my blood work checked. At age 55, it’s better than it was 20 years ago.” Her best advice: “Progress is progress no matter how small. Just start — you’ll be amazed by where you end up!”
Want to get started on your own weight loss? Check our Virginia Willis’ top weight loss tips below to kickstart your journey.
Virginia’s 5 top weight loss tips
As Virginia began losing weight she continued to educate herself on healthful eating — without compromising the flavors she knew and loved. And as she slimmed, she built an arsenal of tricks that keep her tastebuds happy as excess fat disappeared. “If a stress-eating, postmenopausal Southern chef can lose 65 pounds, then anybody can!” she says. Below, she shares her 5 best tips:
1. Add these to your grocery list
Willis’ new staples came from the list on her fridge, including omega-3 rich fish, plant protein from beans and seeds, antioxidant-rich produce, olive oil and nuts. “It kept me focused on what’s good and good for me,” says the chef, who still eats carbs but now chooses veggies over starchy sides.
Turns out, emphasizing whole foods and skipping out on the processed ones is key for losing weight on any diet. A study in the journal Cell Medicine revealed that doing so helped participants lose 175% more weight than those who ate more processed fare. “When you eat whole foods, you feel content after far fewer calories,” notes Boston University’s Caroline Apovian, MD.
Plus, sticking to a grocery list of items you can transform into healthy comfort food can also enhance weight loss results. Not only does it take the stressful decision making out of the equation — researchers in the Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior found that prepping a list is associated with a healthier diet and lower BMI. (Want to save money while you slim? Click through to learn the best new ways to shrink your grocery bill.)
2. Focus on texture and flavor
Food lovers crave more than typical diet fare like plain salmon and broccoli, right? “Absolutely!” says Willis, who gives fish and chicken a crunchy crumb coating and punches up dishes with ingredients like bacon, blue cheese, hot peppers and maple syrup. “Food loaded with texture and flavor is more satisfying, so you naturally eat less,” she insists. (Click through to learn more about the importance of food texture for weight loss.)
And research agrees: Scientists from Colorado State University and Brigham Young University found that when we can hear ourselves crunching on food, we tend to eat less. What’s more, seasoning your dishes with plenty of spices can help you effortlessly cut back on salt and saturated fat, plus lower blood pressure and reduce risk for heart disease.
3. Track the easy way
Willis also uses a weight loss app to track her portions. “It’s very grounding to measure everything,” says the chef, who doles out things like peanut butter and ice cream with a 1 tablespoon cookie-dough scoop. “It’s a guardrail to keep me on track.” Scientists agree: When we track, research shows it can help double weight loss. Try using an app like MyFitnessPal to keep an eye on your calories and portions.
Miss a day or two tracking? No need to worry — researchers in the journal Obesity report that folks who log about 70% of their days still lost significant weight compared to those who tracked less.
4. Go for “broth breaks”
Willis read that staying super-hydrated is healing, so in addition to lots of water, “I started making broth using veggie scraps. It’s became my go-to snack. It’s delicious, boosts my energy and is surprisingly filling.” European studies show a hydrating glass of water or mug of broth revs metabolism by up to 30% and stimulates a stop-eating region of the brain. (Struggle to stay hydrated? Click through to learn the powers of electrolyte water and how it can help you slim.)
5. Reach for these cookies
Sometimes, you just want dessert. “Instead of depriving myself, I make mine with less sugar and healthier ingredients,” says Willis. “Two of my cookies and fruit after supper make a perfect ending to the day. I never find myself prowling the cabinets later in the evening.” (Find the recipe below.) Even just a slight decrease in sugar intake can have a significant impact on weight loss, report researchers in The BMJ.
Chef Virginia Willis’ lightened-up comfort food recipes
The Southern chef is sharing some favorite recipes that helped her drop 65 pounds. Worried you don’t have enough time or the cooking skills to make them? She promises the dishes are super-easy to prepare. “I like food that’s wholesome and simple,” she says. “Even beginners and busy women can use my recipes to make really satisfying food. Bon appétit, y’all!”
Peanut Butter Cookies
These treats have all the delicious flavor but half the sugar of most cookie recipes — plus they whip up fast too
- 1 cup crunchy peanut butter
- ½ cup sugar
- 1 egg
- Heat oven to 350°F all ingredients. Roll into 24 balls. Place 2 inches apart on a lined sheet; flatten each with a fork.
- Bake until browned and set, about 10 minutes. Set sheet on a rack to cool. Enjoy with fruit. Makes 12 servings
Buffalo Ranch Dip
“Blue cheese packs so much punch, no one will notice the reduced-fat cheddar,” the chef promises
- ½ cup light cream cheese
- ½ cup 0% milkfat Icelandic or Greek yogurt
- ½cup reduced-fat cheddar
- ¼ cup hot sauce
- 4 Tbs. blue cheese crumbles, divided
- 2½ cups shredded cooked chicken breast
- 2 green onions, chopped, divided
- Combine cream cheese, yogurt, cheddar, hot sauce and 2 Tbs. blue cheese. Fold in chicken and half the green onions.
- Spoon into a baking dish and top with remaining blue cheese and green onion.
- Bake at 350ºF until hot and bubbly, about 15 minutes. Enjoy with sliced veggies. Makes 4 cups
This lightened-up classic is perfect for supper and leftovers that make great sandwiches.
- 1 onion, finely chopped
- 1 clove garlic, chopped
- 1 lb. ground turkey
- 1 large egg, beaten
- ¼ cup low-sodium ketchup
- 1 tsp. low-sodium Worcestershire sauce
- In cooking spray, sauté onion until clear, 3 minutes. Add garlic until fragrant, 45 seconds. Let cool slightly.
- In bowl, mix veggies, turkey, egg and salt and pepper to taste. On lined sheet, form loaf. Mix ketchup and Worcestershire; brush on meat.
- Bake at 400ºF until meat thermometer registers 165°F, 30–45 minutes, depending on thickness. Serves 4
Charred Cauliflower Tacos
“Taking the time to char cauliflower is worth it,” says Virginia. “It brings out so much flavor with zero added calories!”
- 2 cups chopped cauliflower
- 2 tsp. chili powder
- 1 tsp. ground coriander1 tsp. ground cumin
- 8 corn tortillas or any healthy tortillas, warmed
- Optional toppings: radish, onion, tomato, sliced peppers, cilantro, lime juice, light sour cream
- Heat a large cast iron skillet over medium heat. Add cauliflower. Cook, stirring occasionally, until darkly charred and tender, about 20 minutes.
- Add spices and season with salt and pepper, stirring until the cauliflower is well-coated. Spoon into tortillas and pile on any desired toppings. Makes 8 tacos
All recipes from Fresh Start: Cooking With Virginia — My Real Life Daily Guide to Healthy Eating and Weight Loss. Used with permission.
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This article originally appeared in our print magazine, Woman’s World.
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