Chef Marco Canora's conversion from cigarettes, bread and sugar to grains like rye berries, amaranth, quinoa and farro had a near-miraculous effect on his health.

By Sarah DiGregorio
February 05, 2015

Chef Marco Canora's conversion from cigarettes, bread and sugar to grains like rye berries, amaranth, quinoa and farro had a near-miraculous effect on his health.

There was a time when 80 percent of New York City chef Marco Canora’s diet was made up of white bread—the really good crusty kind from Sullivan Street Bakery, but still. The rest of his sustenance came in the form of ice cream from his New York restaurant Hearth, plus cigarettes and liquor. “It was not pretty,” he says. “Twenty years of cigarettes, bread and sugar, and it’s freaking ugly, man.” (Canora swears like a sailor and did not say “freaking.”)

It’s not that he didn’t know better: He grew up eating the healthiest food imaginable. His mother moved to upstate New York from Tuscany when she was 18, and she brought the Tuscan cooking style with her. Canora’s childhood was filled with wholesome and delicious dishes: spaghetti with fresh tomato sauce, string beans in good olive oil, zucchini frittatas, fried zucchini blossoms and all kinds of amazing salads made with ingredients from their huge garden. “My mom was way ahead of her time,” says Canora. “But I was like, ‘Why do my friends get all the good stuff?’ For afterschool snacks, I swear to God, we had a wicker basket full of nuts in the shells with a nutcracker. The joke among my friends was, ‘Hey, Marco, let’s go to your house for nuts.’”

Despite the good start, by the time he hit 40, his health issues were alarming: sleep apnea, prediabetes, high cholesterol, gout. The white-bread diet wasn’t really working for him. So Canora switched to the dishes that he shares below: nutty spelt pasta with chicken livers; incredible Parmesan broth with tiny grains of amaranth; chewy steel-cut oats with dried cherries. It’s an approach he documents in his new cookbook, A Good Food Day.

His conversion to whole grains (or, as he calls them, “intact,” unprocessed grains) had a near-miraculous effect on his health. He slimmed down—in part because the fiber in whole grains helps you lose weight. His blood sugar levels steadied when he cut out refined white flour, which causes a roller coaster of spikes and drops. His gout went away.

Yet Canora is still the same guy who used to sneak chicken nuggets at his friends’ houses. “Once in a while, I go out with my wife and have four glasses of wine, and I eat whatever I want and have an after-dinner drink and dessert,” he says. “I’m a hedonist at heart.”

Marco’s Rules For Good Eating

1. Deprivation Isn’t a Long-Term Solution.
Satisfaction is. On a good food day, eating is a source of pleasure.

2. Ignore Health Buzzwords On Processed-Food Packages.

Let the ingredient list guide you.

3. A Twinge Of Hunger Isn't the End of the World.
Recognizing real hunger is a key part of learning to feed yourself well.

4. Diversify.

Choose foods with a wide range of flavors, colors and textures.

5. Say “To Hell With It” Every Now And Then.

It will increase your chances of sticking to good eating habits.

Caraway Salmon with Rye Berry–and–Beet Salad
Creamy Steel-Cut Oats with Dried Cherries and Almonds
Escarole Salad with Red Quinoa and Hazelnuts
Sweet Brown Rice Risotto with Kale and Cremini
Fig-and-Rosemary Focaccia with Pecorino
Amaranth in Brodo with Egg and Spinach
Spelt Rigatoni with Chicken Livers, Leeks and Sage
Short Rib Farrotto with Carrots and Parsnips

Healthy Swaps for the Country's Worst Dishes
Fantastic Farro, Couscous and Quinoa Recipes
Healthy, Fast Weeknight Dinners