It doesn’t take much digging to discover Anna Vocino is a woman of many talents. Spend a few minutes on her website, and you’ll see what I mean. When I took some time to talk with her awhile back, I quickly learned that her life has taken her down a diverse career path.
Vocino, a natural performer from early on, can count acting, voiceover work, improv, and eventually stand-up comedy on her list of talents. While all of these things have served her well, sitting around waiting for the phone to ring can be, as she puts it, really disempowering.
Even so, when her friend Vinnie Tortorich reached out to see if she’d be interested in helping him launch a podcast several years ago, she initially said no. Vinnie’s book Fitness Confidential was out, and he wanted the podcast to serve as a platform. Yet knowing from experience how much work producing a podcast could be, she just wasn’t sure if she should take it on.
But then she read the book. Vinnie’s message—No Sugars No Grains, or NSNG—convinced her that working with him was the right thing to do. Hence, the “Fitness Confidential” podcast was born. Yet another twist along her career path—but, as you’ll see, not the last.
In 2016, Vocino added cookbook author to her resume. Three years later, she published another one. As Vinnie explains in the foreword to her second cookbook, she’d pop into her kitchen and whip up fabulous meals to keep them going during the long hours of working on the podcast. Vinnie loved it all and finally convinced her that she needed to share it with the masses.
The Eat Happy Philosophy
Her first cookbook, Eat Happy, is full of the gluten- and grain-free recipes that she’s been making in her own kitchen since being diagnosed with celiac disease in 2002. Just three years after the publication of her first cookbook, she’d concocted so much more deliciousness that it was time for Eat Happy Too, which features more than 160 new recipes for what Vocino calls “low-carb comfort food.”
Even though she swore she’d never write another cookbook after doing it once, Eat Happy Too was a great excuse for Vocino to go back and fill in some gaps. While the first book focuses on simple recipes, the second book includes loads of sauces and dressings, plus desserts and cocktails, which are often taboo in low-carb eating.
Vocino also wanted to recreate some Asian-inspired dishes, which she’d been missing since giving up gluten, grains, and sugars. Boy, does she deliver! You’ll find recipes for red curry short ribs, beef pho, poke bowls, and crispy orange chicken, to name a few. Freaking yum, right?
The inspiration for both book titles came from recognizing how her food choices help her regulate her own brain chemistry—the way she eats makes her happy. These choices, reflected in her Eat Happy cookbooks, are defined by a few general principles:
- Eliminate grains and sugars (most of the time).
- Eat until you’re full.
- Eat when you’re hungry again.
- Move your body.
This isn’t a “diet.” No counting calories, no keeping track of fat and carbs. But Vocino knows that many people are still deeply invested in the “diet” mentality. These are generally the same folks who want nutritional information for each and every recipe in the Eat Happy books so they can keep track of how many grams of this or that they’re consuming. Once upon a time, Vocino was the same way, so she understands. However, she doesn’t believe this puts you on the path to health, so you won’t find her focusing on it in her cookbooks.
A Skeptical Start
Though she gave up gluten foods after her celiac diagnosis, Vocino didn’t jump on the No Sugars No Grains bandwagon until the summer of 2013. Prior to that she was using more mainstream techniques, but nothing was working. It’s safe to say that she started out skeptical.
But when you switch your body from running on glucose to running on fat, as Vocino did, you started seeing changes. She lost the water weight her body had been holding onto due to inflammation from eating grains and sugars. As it does for so many, this gave her the positive feedback she needed to keep going. After that, she fell in love with the fact that she was no longer “being bossed around by her hunger pangs.”
Everything just goes more smoothly when you eat the way you know you’re meant to. When that brain fog lifts, you start thinking more clearly.
Living by Example
One thing that Vocino considers high praise indeed is when a reader—generally the cook of the family—writes in to say that nobody else realized the dish was low carb—just that it was really good. You know you’re doing something right when nobody notices that the shepherd’s pie they had for dinner had no potatoes on top.
This kind of stuff makes her day because it’s difficult to change the way the whole family eats. Vocino knows this from personal experience. After her celiac diagnosis, she started making different meals for everyone in the family—herself, her hubby, and their daughter.
But eating habits and food choices are a personal journey, and nobody wants to be preached to about their own choices. Until they’re ready to really hear it, they don’t care why they should give up processed carbs. Of course, you should be ready to answer questions when someone asks—but living by example is the way to go.
Over time, this approach began to work for her family. After getting some less than perfect bloodwork results in his mid-forties, her hubby now eats pretty much the same as Vocino does at home. It’s this solid, healthy foundation that allows him to (occasionally) make less-nutritious choices when they aren’t together—and that works for him. A couple of years ago, her “noodle and nugget” daughter also started making healthier food choices and eating more fruits and vegetables.
Some folks who call into their podcast complain of family members who are skeptical of the changes they’re trying to make and ask pointedly intrusive questions. (“Won’t all that fat clog your arteries?”) But when your bloodwork numbers come back better than they’ve been in years or you lose the weight you’ve been struggling with since forever ago, they often come around and realize you might be on to something. Food can’t resolve every health issue out there, Vocino says, but it’s a good foundation.
A Lifelong Love of Cooking
Vocino has always been drawn to cooking and cookbooks. She rips recipes out of magazines just like the rest of us. Her mother, a single parent, didn’t spend much time in the kitchen because she was always working to support the family. Though she wasn’t allowed to watch television, she would secretly watch Julia Child and The Frugal Gourmet and think to herself, Now, that’s what I want to make. Even though they didn’t have this kind of food at her house growing up, she was always trying to make it happen.
One of her earliest memories of being in the kitchen was making cookies with her mother. In fact, she still has her grandmother’s Christmas cookie cutters, which inspired the low-sugar, grain-free cookie cutter recipe in Eat Happy Too. (Side note: I still have my mom’s cookie cutters too, and I don’t plan on ever getting rid of them.) 🙂
Heading off to boarding school at 14 only deepened her love of cooking. Vocino was able to experience different cultures and see how other people work in their kitchens. Ever since, she feels as though she’s always in someone’s kitchen, asking questions about what they’re doing and why.
(At this point in our conversation, she gave me a wonderful party tip: If you’re ever feeling socially awkward at a party, go into the kitchen and just start helping make things. It’s also a great way to avoid your weird uncle at family gatherings!)
In college, Vocino seemed more interested in quality olive oils and fancy salts than her fellow students. During one visit, her mother took her to the grocery store and bought her a whole bunch of spices—not your typical indulgence for a college student. This was her first kitchen-related gift, and knowing what a big splurge it was for her mother, she treasures the memory. Vocino has been keeping her spice rack stocked with fresh spices ever since.
Right out of college, Vocino went to work for her best friend, who’d just bought a catering company. Cutting thousands of red peppers and chopping even more onions turned her into a quick-prep master. But perhaps even more importantly, the work helped Vocino develop her knowledge of different flavors and how they go together.
Life Needs to Be Celebrated
I couldn’t resist. I had to ask Vocino if there’s a certain food that takes her off course when it’s put in front of her. “This is real life,” she told me. “People need to make pumpkin pie at Thanksgiving. And we need to make a cake for a birthday. We need these things in our lives. Life needs to be celebrated.”
Vocino doesn’t exclude desserts from her cookbooks—but she does put her badass recipe developing skills to good use. The first step is to simply make a familiar recipe without any sugar. If it works, she gets the thrill of making a dessert recipe with no added sugar. If it doesn’t work, she slowly adds a little bit of sugar at a time until it works with as little sweetener as possible.
That being said, if she’s going to a particular place to get her favorite thing, she goes for it. Don’t rob yourself of those things, just don’t do them every day. That’s how you fall back into old habits and get off track. You know your own personality and disposition. Only you know if you can have an occasional indulgence or not. It’s your body, and you get to choose.
I learned what Vocino considers kitchen essentials by asking what gifts she gives and receives. For friends who don’t seem to have much in their kitchens, she’ll consider the basics—perhaps a whisk or a microplane grader, or even an Instant Pot. (But never her own books, unless requested—she thinks it’s tacky.)
For herself, Vocino had long wanted a Vitamix, and several years ago, her husband gave her one. I asked if she uses it as much as she thought she would, and she said she still uses it three times a day: for her morning coffee, a shake of some kind, and a sauce or anything that needs to be pureed. Initially, she thought they were a bunch of hype, but she says it can still “juice a shoe or turn rocks into a smoothie.”
When it comes to sourcing the ingredients for her recipes, Vocino is lucky—she lives in California. But if you’re in a part of the country where finding what you need for gluten- and grain-free cooking is a challenge, don’t let that stop you. You can easily purchase a good number of nonperishable food items online and get them shipped right to your front door.
Vocino suggests that you try substituting ingredients as well. If your local market doesn’t carry Gruyere cheese (or it’s really expensive), try Swiss instead. Substituting also teaches you about different flavors and how they work together—or don’t. “Just do the best you can with what’s available to you and what your budget allows. You can only do what you can do.”
Eventually, we came around to one of the enduring questions of our time: What should I make for dinner tonight?
Vocino hasn’t been able to get enough of the Spaghetti Squash with Sausage, Leek, and Sage Sauce in Eat Happy Too (p. 37). As long as you have a spaghetti squash in your kitchen, you can put this together pretty quickly.
The Instant Pot Chicken Paprikash Stew (p. 102) has also been on a pretty regular rotation.
When she doesn’t feel like cooking, she checks the fridge and improvises. For one recent meal, she simply sautéed leftover vegetables with a few more vegetables, then made a sweet and spicy sauce with the juice of half an orange, some olive oil, and red pepper flakes. She quickly defrosted some small steaks by putting a bunch of salt on them (a tip I hadn’t heard before) and pan-fried them to finish off the meal.
Makes it sound so easy, doesn’t she?
A few tips to get a quick dinner on the table:
- Always try to keep something in the freezer that can defrost quickly. Once defrosted, add salt, pepper, and/or spices, and fry it up.
- Chicken thighs and grass-fed ground beef are two easy proteins to keep on hand. You can always come up with something quick using one or the other.
- Stovetop cooking is the fastest, followed by the oven. Keep the slow cooker for when you have the time to throw everything in and leave it all day.
A Fellow Self-Healther
I let her know the name of my blog here on SRP is “Adventures of a Self-Healther,” and I asked her if she thinks of herself as one. She does. To her, a self-healther is someone who takes responsibility for their own health. Vocino is the kind of person who, for example, wants to know what her bloodwork numbers really mean because you can only make an educated decision about things when you understand them. She’s also a big believer in seeking the root cause of what ails you rather than masking the symptoms.
She hasn’t always had a self-health mindset. In college she lived your typical fast-food lifestyle and made less-than-ideal choices with seemingly no consequences. When she was 18, she ate a filet of fish sandwich every day for a month just because she thought it would be funny. But after being diagnosed with celiac disease, she was forced to make some changes.
Vocino wanted to leave all of us with one thought. If you’re considering a change to a low-carb, gluten- and grain-free way of life—just start! Anything that gets in your way, you gotta throw out. Do the “clean the pantry” thing so the temptation isn’t there. Make real food and learn to trust yourself in the kitchen.
Anna Vocino is someone I’d love to hang out with in my kitchen. And thanks to Eat Happy and Eat Happy Too, I can. In the years to come, I’ll be curious to see what twists and turns her path takes her on. No matter what they might be, they’re sure to be worth checking out.
Images from Anna Vocino.