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The Best Weight-Loss Goal Is No Goal

By focusing on wellness, chef Virginia Willis lost 65 pounds and gained a new perspective

spinner image Virginia Willis, 56, is a chef instructor for Food Network Kitchen and author of the James Beard award–winning cookbook Lighten Up, Y’all. She lives in Atlanta.
Virginia Willis

The editor at a national health magazine pestered me for weeks. She wanted to tell the story of my triumph: how I’d lost 40 pounds and, in 2015, published an award-winning cookbook on how to make Southern comfort food healthier.

The thing was, I knew I no longer fit the story. Four years after the book came out, my career of cooking, eating and drinking, plus weathering personal stress through food, had piled the pounds back on. And when I finally confessed my new weight to the editor, she ghosted me. That was my tipping point. Something had to really change this time.

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Instead of dieting toward a target weight, I decided to aim for “healthy and strong.” I began walking for exercise and slowly changing my relationship with food. I wanted it to nourish me, not numb me. When COVID hit, I started meditating and journaling too.

What I discovered through this yearslong, introspective process was that the best way for me to protect my health was with what I call life guardrails. Real guardrails keep your car out of the ditch. In the same way, my life guardrails help me stay on track. My three main guardrails are to eat healthy, exercise and practice mindful behavior every day. With habit, repetition and consistency, I gradually lost 65 pounds and have kept them off for two years.

But being healthy and strong is not just about weight. It’s physical, mental and spiritual wellness. And wellness is not a destination; it’s a path. No one can be perfect, but I believe that if you stay on the path more often than not, you’re doing all right.

You can still eat foods that are delicious — even sometimes indulgent and decadent — and lose weight. I am a real-life example that this can be done, as long as you stay mindful of what you’re eating. One of my favorite desserts is carrot cake. The standard recipe seems healthy — it’s full of vegetables, right? But it usually has a ton of oil. So I boost the moisture with crushed pineapple and go lighter on the oil. (Of course, the cake and frosting still contain sugar, so it’s important to enjoy this treat in moderation.)

By making a habit of eating well, I’m not just taking care of my body — I’m feeling good about my entire body. And that’s the biggest change of all.

spinner image closeup of a beautiful carrot cake with a slice taken out

Lower-Fat Carrot Cake

Serves 24


Cake Rounds

  • 1 (8-ounce) can crushed pineapple in pineapple juice
  • 2¼ cups whole wheat pastry flour, plus more for dusting the pans
  • 1¼ teaspoons baking powder
  • 1 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1 teaspoon fine sea salt
  • 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • ¼ teaspoon ground allspice
  • ¼ teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
  • 1 cup chopped pecans
  • ½ cup golden raisins
  • 1½ cups granulated sugar
  • 3 large eggs
  • ½ cup canola oil
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 3 cups grated carrots (4 to 6 medium)
  • Pecan halves, for garnish


  • 1 (8-ounce) package low-fat cream cheese, at room temperature
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • Pinch of fine sea salt
  • 1 pound confectioners’ sugar, sifted

1. Heat the oven to 350°F. Spray two 9-inch round cake pans with nonstick cooking spray. Line with parchment paper. Spray again; dust with flour. Set aside.

2. Drain the pineapple in a sieve set over a bowl, pressing on the solids. Reserve the drained pineapple and pineapple juice.

3. In a large mixing bowl, sift together the flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt, cinnamon, allspice and nutmeg. Add the pecans and raisins, tossing to combine and coat. (This will prevent the nuts and raisins from sinking to the bottom.) Set aside.

4. In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, combine the granulated sugar and the eggs. Beat at low speed until well combined. Add the oil in a slow, steady stream, pausing as needed if the mixture starts looking too greasy and unincorporated, until the mixture is smooth. Add the flour-nut mixture, vanilla, drained pineapple and grated carrots. Mix at low speed until combined. Divide the batter evenly between the prepared pans.

5. Bake until a wooden pick inserted in the center of each layer comes out clean and the sides start to pull away from the edges of the pans, 35 to 40 minutes. Let the cake rounds cool in the pans for 10 minutes. Remove them from the pans; place on wire racks, top side down, so they cool completely. Remove the parchment paper. Brush the cake rounds with the reserved pineapple juice.

6. Frosting: In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the whisk or paddle attachment, combine the cream cheese, vanilla and salt. With the mixer at low speed, add the confectioners’ sugar. Blend until smooth and consistent. Set aside the frosting, or refrigerate until ready to use.

7. Once the cake rounds have cooled completely, and when you’re ready to frost, place the first layer on a cake stand or cardboard cake round, top side down. Using a small spatula, evenly cover the top of the first layer with about 1 cup frosting. Spread the frosting so it extends to the edge of the cake. Place the other cake layer, top side down, on top of the frosting; press to make it level. With the spatula, spread the top of the cake with the remaining frosting. Garnish the top with the pecan halves. To serve, slice with a serrated knife. Store in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to 3 days.

Nutrients per serving: 310 calories, 4g protein, 47g carbohydrates, 3g fiber, 12g fat, 25mg cholesterol, 230mg sodium

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