Chef Rocco DiSpirito’s Recipe for Relief

Relentless back pain almost sidelined the celebrity chef's career. That was until he lost 30 pounds and began turning "downfall dishes" like lasagna into a dieter's dream.

Health Monitor Staff
More Sharing +

If you spend a day with Chef Rocco DiSpirito, you'd better wear running gear. At any moment, you might find him perfecting recipes for a new cookbook, filming segments for The Dr. Oz Show or Now Eat This! With Rocco DiSpirito, or volunteering to cook and deliver meals for charities like the Food Bank For New York City. And when he isn't putting his culinary skills to work, the Queens, NY, native can usually be found biking up to 40 miles around Manhattan's west side.

But there was a time when the 46-year-old chef struggled to simply get up in the morning. In his mid-30s, just as Rocco's career started sizzling—he had opened two acclaimed New York City restaurants and been voted "Most Exciting Young Chef" by Gourmet magazine—his on-and-off lower back pain intensified. Although Rocco was no stranger to back problems (he had been dealing with scoliosis for decades), this bout was nearly unbearable. It involved occasional spasms of "shocking, radiating, take-your-breath-away kind of pain where all you can do is crawl around."

Quit cooking—or find a miracle
"I just didn't know how I could function as a chef," he recalls. "Without a lot of painkillers or a miracle, I wouldn't be able to stand at the stove anymore—or stand anywhere, period. I was working at Union Pacific [his restaurant] at the time, so taking muscle relaxers didn't seem plausible, either—they'd put me to sleep!"

As Rocco discovered, back pain is notoriously hard to treat, and for most of his life he was told to live with it. He was also advised to spend less time on his feet to take pressure off the spine. But with his career taking off, that was not an option for the ambitious chef. X-rays later revealed that Rocco had compressed disks in his lower back along with scoliosis. After some trial and error, Rocco found relief with chiropractic treatment. He also wore orthotics to balance his stance and began stretching, cycling and doing light resistance training.

Rocco's "aha" moment
Within three months, Rocco noticed a "dramatic improvement" in his flexibility. Then two incidents kicked off what would eventually lead to a whole new Rocco: First, he signed up for a charity triathlon suggested by his chiropractor. "I could barely walk a mile then, much less run one," Rocco laughs. "But I loved the sound of doing something that seemed impossible!" (Before trying any new exercise or treatment, discuss it with your doctor.)

Around the same time, Rocco's primary care doctor diagnosed him with high cholesterol and high blood pressure. "It just helped cement in my mind that now was the time to take it into high gear." After completing that first charity triathlon in 2006—where he proudly came in last!—Rocco continued training for other events. But as a food lover, Rocco refused to live on protein shakes, as many of his competitors did.

His solution: make his favorite dishes diet-friendly by pumping up the protein and "good carbs" (such as whole grains) while reducing the fat and "bad carbs" (such as white pasta).

The impressive result: Rocco shed over 30 pounds and 12% of his body fat, brought his cholesterol and blood pressure back to normal and competed in the Ironman 70.3 triathlon (that's 1.1 miles of swimming, 56 miles of cycling and 13.1 miles of running).

Today, Rocco is sharing a few recipe makeover tricks from his best-selling Now Eat This! series of cookbooks. Below is a sampling of Rocco's easy food swaps.

"My favorite food swaps"
Swap this:
 Sour cream
For that:
 A blend of fat-free cottage cheese and lemon juice
 328 calories per cup

Swap this: Bread crumbs 
For that: Puffed brown rice (in meatballs, meat loaf and burger mixes)
Save: 360 calories per cup

Swap this: Deep-frying flash frying
For that: First, cook your food—chicken, fish, veggies—in the microwave. Once this"heavy lifting" is done, simply bread as usual (see bread crumbs swap above) and flash fry for a few seconds to create a crispy outer coating
Save: 270 calories per portion

March 2013