After 10 years of being behind the judges’ table on Chopped, Chris Santos had a revelation about how he looked now versus when he started.
“Over the course of ten years I gained 50 pounds,” the chef tells PEOPLE exclusively, “which is a ton of weight, but if you think about it, it’s five pounds a year, which is less than half a pound a month. It just kind of gradually went on and on and on.”
That realization, plus a move to the West Coast to oversee the new Beauty & Essex location in Los Angeles, led Santos to make some changes. The restaurateur, who also runs four other eateries including New York City’s Vandal and Stanton Social, has adapted a more plant-based diet and started intermittent fasting three times per week. Since June, he is down 30 lbs., with a goal of losing 20 more.
Santos was inspired to try the controlled eating tactic, which calls for 16 hours of fasting in a day, after speaking to a few friends who’d had success with it. “And you know, if it works for The Rock, then I got to give it a shot,” he adds.
Nutritional expert Naomi Whittel explains that intermittent fasting has potential benefits because “it’s like a metabolic confusion,” she says. “So your metabolism is almost forced to do a better job. never knows exactly what’s happening and it’s really, really healthy for us. It improves our immune systems.”
Santos has “drastically reduced” his beer intake (he now drinks strictly Tito’s and soda or whiskey with water), and gone are the habits he adapted from his early days as a chef.
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“Before, when I got home after a 12-14 hour day, that was my time—that was me time. I would order food late, and it would never be anything good. It would be a cheesesteak, a pizza, a cheeseburger, any number of things that are definitely not healthy choices whatsoever. If GrubHub had a category called unhealthy, that would be the one I would be clicking on every time,” he says.
Now if he’s hungry late-night, he’ll grill up a piece of chicken or a salmon fillet. “I’m still eating on the later side, but eating something that’s a much smarter choice,” he adds.
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Santos’ girlfriend, actress Natalie Makenna, also played a huge part in his new lifestyle. “She eats extremely clean. She takes care of herself. She works out. She hydrates. She goes on juice cleanses,” says Santos. “So I’m slowly but surely adopting some of her habits, but I’m adapting them to what I think is realistic.”
Makenna also pitches in when Santos is letting his once-a-week cheat day meals get a little out of hand: “She just knows what it means when I say, ‘Take this.’ She knows that it means get it away from me, wrap it up, put it in the fridge, because I’m going to keep eating it if it sits in front of me anymore,” says Santos.
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The chef has recently taken up running and completed his first 5K. “I’m going to keep running one every other month for a while until I can do a 10K,” he says. “I’m not going to sit here and say that my goal is a marathon, but I’m not going to say that it’s not.”
The past few months while Santos has been concentrating on his health, him and his fellow judges, including Geoffrey Zakarian and Alex Guarnaschelli, have been on hiatus from shooting, so his fit figure has yet to make its TV debut. Santos says he would often received criticism on his weight from viewers on Twitter, but now, he says, “when I go back into the studio in February, I can have the last laugh.”