Southern Chef Virginia Willis Shares Her Weight Loss Secrets for Success
Virginia Willis loves to cook. She's been doing it since she was knee-high to her grandma. Even more, Willis loves to eat. That's not shocking given she's a French-trained Southern chef who's written eight cookbooks, including the James Beard Award-winning, Lighten Up, Y'all ($24.99, BarnesandNoble.com).
"I'm not one of those people who's like, 'Oh, I can't eat that!' I'm like, bring it!" laughs Willis. What is astonishing, however, is that Willis managed to shed roughly 65 pounds starting in 2019—all while testing recipes nearly nonstop and dealing with the breakup of a 10-year relationship, a herniated disc, a big move from Massachusetts back home to Georgia and, of course, a global pandemic.
Willis, a self-proclaimed "sturdy woman," wasn't looking to transform into a skinny person. Instead, she wanted her clothes to fit a little better; she wanted to move a little better. "And, honestly, I didn't want to feel ashamed of my size anymore," she says. Those drivers were enough...for a while.
The thing is, even at her heaviest, Willis' diet wasn't terrible. She was eating lots of fresh fruits and vegetables and avoiding processed foods. And she was going to the gym. "But I was also drinking and eating too much. I might have been using too much butter and cream, too! But mostly, I just wasn't being kind to myself," says Willis.
Willis lost almost 40 pounds in 2019, thanks to regular workouts and WW-style points-counting. And while she has never been to a Weight Watchers meeting, she has taken a shine to the idea that every food has a number and relies on their app. "It makes for super-easy math that helps me stay within my guidelines," says Willis.
Then, her motivation began to shift.
In March 2020, a long-scheduled procedure that would've eased Willis' back pain was abruptly canceled thanks to the pandemic. Her physical therapy facility closed. Her gym did too. Heck, COVID-19 even made it more difficult to get fresh, nutritious food at the grocery store. "With all of this going on, I just kept thinking to myself: What do I need to do to keep myself healthy?" says Willis.
Instead of feeling daunted, Willis rose to the challenge. "I kept a list of anti-inflammatory foods for spine health on my fridge that were really ones I already ate, like red fruits and veggies, soy, flaxseed, nuts, olives—but having that reminder made me more cognizant," says Willis.
Willis also relegated red meat to a once-a-week (tops) treat and traded most starchy side dishes for veggies. "I didn't have the gym or PT anymore, but I could walk—and boy, did those walks help relieve pandemic stress," says Willis, who still clocks 3 1⁄2 miles a day with a rotating roster of friends. "Walking has moved far past simple weight loss for me. It's my mental health now."
And when morning strolls replace dinner and drinks as one's social lifeline, other things tend to change, as well—like alcohol intake. Willis says she spent most of the pandemic alcohol-free. At first, it was because booze and her back meds didn't mix. But all that walking and produce-eating helped her lose enough weight to be able to ditch the pain medication altogether. "Essentially, I was free to return to more indulgent drinking and eating when I got off the meds, but I didn't want to," says Willis. "I wanted to keep those guardrails and continue to succeed."
And she has. "If you had told me that I would feel this good as a result of losing 65 pounds, I would not have believed you," says Willis. She no longer needs that spinal procedure. She's never been able to get into Child's Pose quicker. And her blood pressure, cholesterol and other numbers are better than they were a decade ago. "That's exciting stuff!" says Willis.
The best part is, she did it while eating the foods she loves. "I don't want to have bland chicken or plain celery sticks," says Willis. "I want delicious food."
For instance, Willis is an unabashed chocolate lover, so when she saw a "diet" dessert recipe that called for combining fat-free chocolate pudding mix with a can of zero-sugar soda, she frowned. "That's just sad," she says. "When I want an after-dinner treat, I dip slices of Honeycrisp apples into a bittersweet chocolate sauce I make."
In the end, the secrets to her success are straightforward. Willis believes in ditching deprivation, exercising daily, keeping an eye on portions and calories, and embracing the notion that one small, healthy behavior leads to another—and another. "The good spreads like a beautiful web," says Willis. "Hippie-dippie? Maybe. But it's true!"
Allow Willis to help expand your web with the doable tips—and recipes—that continue to work for her today. As down-to-earth as they are, they also happen to be 100% backed by science.
1. Be Realistic
"People are daunted by losing some big number of pounds or starting an exercise routine. But that can defeat you before you start!" says Willis, who notes that if shedding 65 pounds had been her goal from the get-go, she doesn't think she could've done it.
Instead, her mindset was that progress is progress no matter how small. Going from sometimes-walks to several-times-a-week walks? Progress! Swapping a glass of wine for kombucha? Progress!
And being kind to yourself when you feel you've slipped up is imperative. A 2020 study in the British Journal of Health Psychology suggests that dieters who have self-compassion when they experience a lapse during dieting, are better able to pick back up and keep going. Experiencing guilt, on the other hand, seems to have the opposite effect.
2. Get Those Veggies
"It's all about eating more vegetables. Period," says Willis. Yes, they're full of good-for-you vitamins and minerals, but they're also low in calories and fiber-rich, which keeps you feeling fuller longer—both of which can help the pounds come off. In fact, a 2020 report published in the journal Nutrients concluded that upping produce intake can be a chief contributor to weight loss and maintenance.
Buying veggies that are local and in-season is often key to landing the tastiest stuff. But if you need an additional flavor boost, Willis suggests (wait for it) bacon. "A little bit goes a long way," she says. "It'll get people to eat Brussels sprouts!" And that's the ultimate goal, really—to have lots and lots of veg. Not into bacon? Try a dab of miso, suggests Willis. "It adds a delicious, salty, umami quality."
3. Turn Meals Upside-Down
This is another strategy to increase your veggie intake—while surreptitiously cutting calories. "Instead of making beef and broccoli, make broccoli and beef, letting the vegetable take the lead," says Willis.
The idea is to get the same flavors, just in a healthier way, so it doesn't feel like you're missing out or depriving yourself of meals you love. Willis achieves this by deconstructing some of her favorite dishes. Take sausage and peppers, for instance. Rather than use fatty, higher-calorie pork sausage, she copycats the flavor by cooking lean ground turkey with garlic, fennel seeds, red pepper flakes and sage, then tosses in tons of veggies. And for pasta dishes, she replaces regular pasta with half whole-wheat and half zucchini noodles. "It's all about recreating a dish with respect to the original intent," says Willis.
4. Hydrate, Hydrate, Hydrate
"Water is my first line of defense with hunger," says Willis. "I start every meal with a glass. When I think I want a snack, I drink. And if I'm still hungry, then I'll have the snack."
Water takes up space in your belly, which helps you feel full. For example, a 2021 study in the Journal of Diabetes & Metabolic Disorders suggests that drinking water before a meal can decrease how much you eat and assist in greater weight loss. Plus, being well-hydrated is important for overall health, too.
And when water gets boring, Willis sips a mug of vitamin-packed potassium broth. "That's what spas call it, but it's really vegetable stock," she says. Willis makes her own with bits and bobs of vegetables from meal prep and some aromatics. "I strain it and keep it in a pitcher in the fridge. I drink it warm when it's chilly out and have it cold in the summer," says Willis.
5. Scale Up
Weighing yourself regularly—even daily—is a key habit among those who are able to drop pounds and keep them off, according to research at the National Weight Control Registry. Why? Because it allows you to course-correct before 2 pounds become 12.
Just be careful, however, that you use the scale for good, not guilt. "The number on the scale should never be some big shock that you freak out about," says Willis, who steps on the scale weekly. "Up, down or the same, I need to remember that my weight reflects only one piece of my story."
And no matter the digits, there are lessons to learn. "If I'm down, it shows that what I did the prior days was effective. If there's no change, it's still progress, in my mind. Flat is the new down!" she laughs.
And if she's up, that's OK too. "I think I've gained 5 pounds in the past month and a half, but I'm not stressed about it," says Willis. She allows for small fluctuations and uses the scale to keep tabs on her overall weight trends. Smart.
6. Take Care of All of You
"I put face lotion on every night. I rotate my ankles 10 times in bed before I go to sleep. It soothes and prepares my feet for the next day's walk. I no longer keep my phone on my bedside table. And I write in my gratitude journal too," says Willis. "These things have nothing to do with my weight loss and everything to do with my weight loss."
Why? Because mindfulness and self-care lead to more of the same—and are key ingredients for success. According to a 2019 study published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, regularly writing about feelings of gratitude spurred healthier eating—specifically, the grateful folks ate less fast food and more vegetables each week. The researchers note that's because appreciation likely fosters motivation.
7. Be Accountable
"No one needs to try to lose a bunch of weight or get healthier on their own. That's too much for one person," says Willis. "That's why the whole accountability and support piece is tremendously helpful."
For Willis, walking buddies help keep her on track. "Before the pandemic, I'd walk with friends, but it was random. Now I've got a daily appointment, so it's my routine."
Having others who support you—and to whom you are accountable—can be hugely impactful. In a 2020 report based on two studies published in the Journal of Medical Internet Research, researchers found that having accountability, even if just over the phone, increased participants' adherence to weight management behaviors and healthy dietary choices. They also had more positive coping strategies when they ran into weight management challenges.
8. Dial Back the Booze
"In my experience, it's nearly impossible to lose weight and drink alcohol," says Willis. "That's not to say that I don't drink at all, I'm just much more mindful about it now."
That means instead of having a glass or two of wine while making dinner, then more while eating it, she often opts for water or tea. "For the most part, I save my alcohol for dinner with friends, making it part of a celebration," she says.
This makes sense. First, alcoholic drinks pack a surprising number of calories, and that's on top of whatever you're eating with them. And then there's the lowering-of-inhibitions issue that can easily turn a sliver of pie into a slab.
9. Eat the Cake
"If I want a piece, I'm going to eat it—and I'm not going to go for something that's mediocre," says Willis. "It'll be delicious and just enough cake to feel luxurious, but not so much that it kills my healthy-eating game plan."
This approach, says Willis, works better than renouncing any one food altogether. "Deprivation doesn't work for me," she insists.
In fact, it doesn't work for most people. Not only is this habit unsustainable, but a 2022 study in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health found that rigid dieting strategies—like swearing off certain eats—were associated with higher levels of uncontrolled eating, which in turn could lead to weight gain (and guilt). Interestingly, rigid eating rules were also associated with lower life satisfaction, lower optimism and lower self-esteem.
Instead of deprivation, Willis is conscious of serving sizes. When she makes cookies, for example, she does a tiny batch so there's less temptation hanging around. Generosity helps too. "I'm always sharing food, whether baked goods or dinners, with my neighbors," she says.
And sharing food with family and friends is a good reminder that life—and food—are to be celebrated and enjoyed. Cheers!
This article first appeared in EatingWell Magazine, January/February 2022.