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Julia Child showed him that there was a world beyond Minute Rice and macaroni and cheese, the always-enthusiastic Galloping Gourmet taught him that it’s fun to cook, and he learned special hints and tips thanks to the lessons of the Frugal Gourmet.
“My love of cooking came early,” says celebrity chef Juan-Carlos Cruz. “I was a latch-key kid. I came home, watched cooking shows, and had dinner ready for my parents when they came home from work.”
He also learned a thing or two at his father’s apron strings, and was the first boy in his school district to take home economics.
“Even though I was the first boy to take home ec, I was also a state wrestling champion, so no one messed with me,” Cruz laughs. “Not only was I tough, but they knew I wouldn’t share my muffins with them if they teased me.”
Today Cruz is best known as the popular and energetic host of Weighing In and Calorie Commando on the Food Network. His programs focus on his ability to reinvent consumers’ favorite recipes into low-calorie, healthier meals without sacrificing taste. His weight loss plans rely on moderation and substitution for sustainable weight loss and management.
Packing on the pounds
Cruz hasn’t always been the slim, trim guy handing out weight loss advice. In the span of eight years—between discovering the “sensual qualities of chocolate and flour” at culinary school, apprenticing at Amillios Restaurant in San Francisco, working as a pastry chef at Stanford Park Hotel in Silicone Valley, and the pastry sous chef at Los Angeles’ famous Hotel Bel Air—he managed to pack 100 pounds onto his 5-foot 8-inch frame.
He explains how the weight kept creeping on: “My job was to fatten up the rich and famous, and when I baked for them, I just had to try the pastries myself.”
During his five years at the Hotel Bel Air, he created desserts for Gary Oldman, Jack Nicholson, Nancy Reagan, Will Smith, Jim Carrey, Julia Roberts, John Travolta, Bill Clinton, Russell Crowe, and Oprah Winfrey.
After awhile the only pants Cruz could fit into were chef pants with stretchy elastic waistbands, yet he didn’t worry about his weight until he experienced a sharp twinge under his right rib cage.
”I was the happy fat man,” he comments. “My wife loved me regardless of how much weight I gained, and my career was thriving.”
The twinge grew into what Cruz describes as a “burning ice pick” and he was so alarmed he saw the doctor the very next day.
His doctor told him the pain was from his gall bladder trying to pass a gallstone, but his gall bladder was the least of his worries.
“My doctor told me what would kill me was the stroke I was headed for with such high blood pressure,” Cruz comments.
His doctor’s severe warning was enough to scare Cruz into action.
Small, healthy choices
He started with small, feasible changes, such as switching from regular soda to diet soda, limiting himself to just one cookie per day (instead of eating a dozen), and riding his bike to work.
“It was all about small, healthy choices, and eventually, these small choices started working,” he says.
Around this time he began a sideline business, www.pastrydude.com, which he publicized through a public access TV show. His outgoing personality shined through on the show and caught the attention of the Discovery Channel, which approached Cruz to star in a reality show called Body Challenge, similar to today’s popular weight loss shows Celebrity Fit Club and The Biggest Loser.
Cruz lost an impressive 43 pounds on the show and came in second. He later appeared in Body Challenge 2, Body Challenge 3, created Calorie Commando Catering, hosted Calorie Commando (now in reruns) and currently hosts Weighing In, airing at 10 a.m. Tuesdays on the Food Network.
He wrote a book about his experiences, “The Juan-Carlos Cruz Calorie Countdown Cookbook: A Five Week Eating Strategy for Sustainable Weight Loss.”
“I hate getting dieting advice from people who have never been fat, so I sat down and wrote about the hurdles I came across,” he says. “You need to know what you can eat, where you can eat. You need to know portion control. You need to know American Heart Association guidelines when planning your menu.”
Cruz recently partnered with Healthy Choice and the American Heart Association Start! Heart Walk, a decision he calls a “no-brainer.”
“I strongly believe in the cause,” he says. “It was the perfect fit.”
Cruz will be doing Healthy Choice cooking demonstrations at the Twin Cities Start! Heart Walk Saturday, April 28 on St. Paul’s Harriet Island.
Healthy Choice will offer free samples and heart-healthy information to consumers about its “Start Making Choices Program,” a free, online health and wellness effort that can help people enjoy healthier lifestyles.
The program includes personalized daily meal plans with delicious recipes and recommendations, a personalized physical activity plan, logs and trackers to see your progress, and tips, tools, articles, expert advice, and rewards.
For more information, visit www.healthychoice.com.
Tips from the “Calorie Commando” Juan-Carlos Cruz:
- When sautéing, use Pam nonstick cooking spray instead of butter. For every one second of Pam spray, there is about seven calories, compared to 240 calories in two tablespoons of butter.
- Never allow yourself to go hungry. “I snack all day, and I plan these snacks. It saves me from overeating,” Cruz says. “If you get too hungry, you might go on a bender.”
- Get up and do some type of exercise. “The only exercise that’s the best one for you is the one you’re willing to do,” he says.
- Don’t ever skip breakfast.
- Allow yourself one snack each day, and at least one “cheat” meal each week. “If you don’t feel like your guilty pleasures are leaving the planet, you won’t miss them,” he points out.
- Don’t make rewards revolve around food.
- Don’t resort to fad diets.
- Remember that you didn’t get fat overnight, and you won’t get skinny overnight. “You’re in this to win the war, not the battle,” he says. “It’s a long, hard road, but you’ll get there if you stick with it.”