William Kriski decided to change his diet — and his life — about five years ago, when concerns about creeping weight gain combined with a family history of heart disease motivated him to have some blood tests done.
When the results came back, he was startled to learn that his total cholesterol was borderline high at 219 mg/dl. What freaked him out the most was that his triglyceride levels were so off the charts, the lab couldn’t even assess his LDL levels.
Will, now 49, decided to make a dramatic change to his diet. After 10 months, his total cholesterol went down to 110 mg/dl — “a massive drop,” he says. “When I saw that, I felt amazing.”
Today, Will is the force behind “Potato Strong,” a social-media project (Facebook, YouTube, Instagram) that helps people follow his example with recipes and tips for a low-fat, whole-foods, plant-based diet that emphasizes starchy vegetables.
In a phone interview from his home in New Brunswick, Canada, Will talks about his transformation and the healthy way to eat potatoes and pasta.
HealthCentral (HC): So Will, can you tell us a little more about how you became the “Potato Strong” guy?
William Kriski (WK): About five years ago I was working as an IT programmer. I’d be sitting all day writing code, with crazy deadlines. At night I’d be tired and tempted to go out for fast food. I think for a lot of people, cooking isn’t a large part of your life when you’re busy.
I have a family history of heart disease, so I thought I would have some blood work done to see how things were going. The results kind of scared me, so I looked into making changes in my lifestyle.
At around the same time I saw a documentary called Forks Over Knives. It was all about people who’d improved their health by changing their diets. There were a bunch of doctors in the film and I kind of latched onto one, Dr. John McDougall. I started following the diet in his book, The Starch Solution, and over a year I lost 35 pounds.
I came up with some recipes myself and started sharing them on social media. Over time I built up a following.
HC: There are so many diet gurus in the world. How did you break through?
WK: I was surprised. I’m shy as hell. On other channels there’s a lot of drama, with people criticizing each other, trying to get more clicks and views. I’m more straight-laced, just trying to help people and say, “This is my experience.”
The other thing is, my recipes are really popular because they don’t take a lot of time and they taste really good. It’s all comfort food — pizza, pasta, burritos. Mashed potatoes and gravy. Nachos. A lot of people aren’t great cooks and they don’t have a lot of confidence. Very simple, basic recipes were valuable to them.
HC: What’s your most popular recipe?
WK: Probably earlier on it was baked fries. I cut up potatoes into french-fry shapes, cover them in Italian spices, then bake them at 450 F for 30 to 40 minutes, until crispy. People are afraid of carbs, so when they get to eat a big plate of french fries, it’s pretty exciting.
HC: Yes, everyone is terrified of carbs! But they’re the centerpiece of your diet. Why?
WK: Well, it’s a vegan diet — plant-based and starch-based, to be more specific. The starches are potatoes, beans, rice, pasta, oats, [and] wheat (bread). That’s the bulk of the food because it’s filling. Then you add non-starchy veggies like greens, broccoli and carrots that are lower in calories and full of nutrients. Dr. McDougall allows a little bit of fruit as well and a little salt and sugar for flavor.
There’s no oil, that’s another big thing. And no animal products whatsoever: no meat, dairy, eggs, anything like that.
With diets that are animal-food-based and higher in fat, you have to watch the portion sizes. Fat is 9 calories per gram, while pure carbohydrates are 4 calories per gram. Potatoes are just 1 calorie per gram because they are full of water. You don’t need portion control because you’re limited by the size of your stomach.
HC: How can you make food taste good when you cook with so little fat?
WK: The first surprise is with oil: A lot of times people use oil to cook veggies, like if they’re making a stir-fry or pasta, but it’s not necessary — you can use a little bit of water or veggie broth. And then a lot of times if something is deep-fried or fried with a lot of oil, you just want the crispy texture, which you can get from baking.
For flavor, a lot of food tastes really good even without fat. If I make pizza, I’ve got the dough, which tastes amazing, and I’ll make a sauce with tomato paste, Italian spices, garlic, onion, and red and green peppers, and it tastes great.
It’s not like you can’t eat any fat: I still eat things like guacamole and peanut butter. I just need to be aware of it as a little extra. But overall, fat is only, like, 15 percent of the diet. What happens is your taste buds adjust. And with things like rice and beans with salsa, there is no end of flavor.
Interview has been condensed and edited.