Though I have worked as both a health editor and a health writer, most recently I could be best described as a health fraud. Last November, I ran a marathon, then scarfed down a plate of fried chicken and waffles for lunch…followed by a rib-eye dinner. That same day, I slid my slipshod Asics down the garbage shoot and proceeded not to exercise for the rest of the year. Since then, I’ve routinely scarfed down chips for dinner, followed by a pizza-and-diet-coke chaser.
On January 1, like everyone else in the First World, I vowed to be healthier. Enter J.J. Virgin, the author of The Virgin Diet and the new Virgin Diet Cookbook (Grand Central, $31; on sale Feb. 18).
Virgin (who, by the way, came honestly to her web-unfriendly surname) is a genius—seriously, she belongs to Mensa—personal trainer turned nutritionist who theorizes that food intolerances are the true culprit behind weight gain. Readers are eating this up: The original Virgin Diet book, released in 2012, was a New York Times bestseller.
The premise: drop seven ingredients—gluten, dairy, peanuts, eggs, corn, soy and sugar/artificial sweeteners—and lose seven pounds in seven days. Then you’ll experiment with reintroducing what Virgin calls the most “reactive” foods (soy, dairy, eggs and gluten) to your diet to figure out whether you’re truly intolerant. Finally, there’s a third cycle of maintenance.
Weight loss isn’t my primary concern—I am blessed with a metabolism that can take a licking and keep on ticking. I’m also lucky in that I don’t have food sensitivities, nor do I entirely buy the concept that they can cause weight gain (the research is scant). But I know I desperately need to get back on the health train, plus I actually enjoy being told what to eat…within reason. (So much easier!) Armed with a copy of The Virgin Diet Cookbook, I scheduled a pre-Virgin pep talk with the creator herself.
Blonde and buff (the lady is cut), J.J. Virgin is a walking advert for her brand. We meet over coffee—Virgin approved!—on a frigid winter morning. It takes me five minutes to unravel from my layers; Virgin is dressed in a sleeveless purple top, which seems out of place in the polar vortex until I realize that a) she’s from California, and b) if I had her biceps, I’d never wear sleeves, either.
“It’s mind-blowing within days,” she says in regard to her elimination diet, which she credits with clearing her adult acne-prone skin and helping her lose 10 pounds. As we talk, it’s obvious that she demonizes certain foods; within minutes, she refers to gluten, dairy and sugar as “drugs.” I also quickly realize we’re diametrically opposed in regard to snacking (she maintains it impedes weight loss; I can’t make it through a day without a little something-something in between meals). But I can’t argue with her overall message, which is, basically, that you’ll feel better if you eat better.
The best piece of advice Virgin gives me? “Batch and freeze, baby. Batch and freeze.” Indeed, as I discover, preparing large quantities of soups and stir-frys in advance—to avoid the nightly what-the-hell-am-I-having-for-dinner? meltdown—just might be the secret to the healthy life. (Yes, I realize how incredibly unsexy this sounds.)
I set out to claim my Virgin-ity with a few deviations from the plan: I have smoothies for breakfast but solids for lunch and dinner (for the first seven days, the diet calls for liquids for two out of three meals), and I don’t deprive myself of Virgin-friendly snacks (for the most part, I stick with homemade kale chips, almonds, almond butter and apples).
After a methodical shop of my local Loblaws, I prepare a batch of lentil-bacon soup (it had me at “bacon”) for lunches, and pre-chop the ingredients for the next night’s dinner: coconut red curry chicken with brown rice.
The next morning, I get my first taste of la vida Virgin via a chocolate-cherry-chia protein shake. The vegan chocolate protein powder is much too sweet for my taste, though on the bright side, the shake is so unappealing it effectively kills my appetite. (The next day, I replace it with an almond and kale smoothie from Gwyneth Paltrow’s It’s All Good.) But the lentil soup and the stir-fry quickly gain a permanent place in my recipe repertoire—both are delicious, filling and simple to make.
For the next two weeks, I cook my way though The Virgin Diet Cookbook. There are a few misses—the stir-fried kale and ginger is a little blah (so I stick to my standby recipe for wilted greens), and I prefer the kale chips from Joy McCarthy’s Joyous Health. Also, after the first week, I bake a batch of Gwyneth’s quinoa granola for forbidden snacking.
After 14 days, during which I didn’t feel overly deprived or hangry, my skin (perennially rosy and prone to mild acne) is noticeably calmer and clearer, my energy is good, and I’ve lost five pounds. Most shocking of all, I actually don’t miss most of the foods I’ve eliminated—so much so that I don’t bother with the reintroduction phase of the diet. (This is common, says Virgin, though she advises against it.)
Instead, I’ve discovered that almond milk lattes, unlike the dairy option, aren’t a one-way ticket to bloatsville. Also, making my lunch every day eliminates the temptation of the office cafeteria’s tawdry offerings (pizza! pulled pork! onion rings!). And with a little forethought—meal planning, prepping for the next night’s dinner, cooking a large batch of soup every Sunday—it’s really not that much of a time suck. I even survive a week of solid overtime sans potato chips and pizza, though I do succumb to a solitary Diet Coke.