CCAC Nutrition

Mike Smalley knows a lot about food. And he should, as he is in his 15th year working as a chef.

He also knows about diets, as a man who’s tried — and succeeded in — losing weight over the years.

So, it is fitting Smalley can lend his knowledge on both topics to address what some health experts might consider the alarming trend of people trying fad diets to lose weight. People, usually those not particularly educated on the topic of food science and biology, often attempt to lose weight with diets that have made news or are trending on their social media feeds because they’ve heard it works — and simply don’t know any better.

Smalley, 42 , is a chef for AVI Food Systems, a company contracted to run the cafeteria for the Community College of Allegheny County. Prior to coming to the college he worked at California University, one of 14 in the Pennsylvania state college system, until about a year ago.

“As opposed to a state college, where there are meal plans, everything here is retail,” Smalley says about the offerings at CCAC. “It’s all short-order stuff, made-to-order, grab-and-go items, assorted beverages.”

Smalley does not frequently receive special requests for food, although students with certain food sensitivities or allergies do compose a portion of his customer base.

“Most of what I deal with are the allergy type of diets — gluten-free, vegan, vegetarian — and on the diet side, the Atkins and the low-carb, things like that,” he says. “As far as feedback, if it’s popular and enough people ask for it, then I try to make it happen. Since it is retail, there’s not that much of a push for specialty diets.”

When Smalley was at California University, where students pay room-and-board fees, he was required to offer foods that suited students’ dietary needs with gluten-free and sodium-free choices, he says.

But when it comes to diets not dictated by allergies or food sensitivities, and are merely a person’s attempt to lose weight or help them to get in shape, such as the Dukan Diet; 17-Day diet; HCG Diet; even one based on apple cider vinegar, Smalley isn’t impressed.

“I hear bits and piece about them,” he says. “Most of them, I completely blow off. They are a fad. And, to me, fads are not worth my time. As a chef, I’m more concerned about safe food for people with allergies. I’m allergic to poultry, so I understand food allergies very well. That’s one reason I got into this, because I had to watch what was in different foods.

“But as far as the fad diets go, I don’t pay much attention to them."

Fad diets often tease the dieter with results at the start, but more often than not fail over the long haul, he says. Some of the fascination with fad diets is the social aspect, Smalley says.

“They can talk to the friends and family and say, ‘I’m on this new diet I read about’ or ‘That was on TV two weeks ago,’” he says. “You ask if they’ve lost any weight and they say, ‘No, not yet.’ Someone can eat salad for breakfast lunch and dinner, but if they sit down at night “and drink a 12-pack of Guinness or chug a two-liter pop, what good are the salads?” he says.

Guinness, by the way, has fewer calories than light beer, he notes.

“If you want to go on a diet, don’t eat like a hog,” he says. “Eat like me, a single guy, and you’ll be fine. I lost 24 pounds two years ago by just knocking off the silly stuff for a while. Pop was the biggest thing I let go of. I made up for it with water.”

Smalley’s doctor had suggested he lose weight for health reasons. So, he laid off the pizza and fast food, but drew the line at not eating a bun if ordering a burger. He lost 24 pounds in just three months of eating better, with little sweat equity.

Some students at CCAC, a few blocks from Heinz Field in Pittsburgh, take the same approach to dining as perhaps a Steelers lineman might.

“It’s fried food, pizza or burgers,” he says of what he sees consumed at CCAC. “We do a decent amount of salads. There was more of that at California University, but there was a different population, more volume there.”

But he has noticed a change, after 26 years in the kitchen, in how people approach dining options.

“Nobody mentioned gluten-free up until a few years ago,” he says.

Smalley reminds people there is food to be enjoyed, even if you want to lose weight.

“A diet should not be a punishment,” he says. “You can eat your cheeseburger, just don’t eat six of them. If you’re on a diet and you’re not enjoying what you’re eating, what good is a diet. You’ve got to have some fun with food. Don’t be afraid of it.”