As a certified yoga instructor and registered dietician with a Master’s in Nutrition from Columbia University, Jennifer Vagios is a yoga guru and health fanatic. Teaching yoga and working with individuals to design personalized, healthy eating plans, she’s on a mission to inspire others to embrace a healthy lifestyle. On her blog, she shares easy-to-make recipes while explaining their nutritional benefits and where to buy ingredients. Her motto is, “Ditch the Diets, Eat a Veggie. Do Yoga & Sometimes eat a Cupcake.”
You refer to yourself as a “yonut.” What does this mean exactly?
One day, while obviously really busy (insert laugh), I think I was staring at the words Yoga and Nutrition. That bored me, and who wants boring? Somehow the letters YO and NUT popped out of those two words, and it immediately clicked. I thought of a donut, then I thought of a new snack. Then I had visions of YONUT items like mugs, t-shirts, etc. That was all it took.
I also liked the fact that people aren’t sure what it is at first but the second they “get it” and perhaps get my sense of humor, it usually makes someone laugh, and I love to make people laugh.
In brief: YO represents me as a yogi/yoga teacher and NUT represents me as nutritionist/dietitian. I’m enthusiastic about both and sometimes feel like a nut, I embrace that nutty side of my personality.
Which practice of yoga is best for beginners?
Nobody parallel parked a car on their first try and nobody’s ever gotten into pigeon pose smoothly their first time, either. Be open-minded and literally go with the flow. You aren’t necessarily going to be good at it the first time and that’s okay! I felt a bit spastic my first yoga class, had to look at everyone around me, thought I was being stared at and didn’t realize my body could do half of poses. That’s pretty normal, but nobody is really paying attention to you, so just wear some stretchy clothes and get on a mat.
On the serious side, there are many different styles of yoga to choose from. There are more athletic practices, spiritual and alignment-based. What’s right for you is not necessarily right for another. I’d definitely recommend a basic and/or beginner class to start out with so that you can focus on the alignment of the poses before you dive right into a sweaty power-hour vinyasa-style class that leaves you stressed and never wanting to do yoga again.
Start with the basics, just like you did with cooking. A Hatha, Kripalu, Iyengar style of yoga class with focus on alignment would be great. Also try out different teachers and studios to see who you like. There are no rules here.
In confidence I’ll say that whether you’re an athlete needing to stretch those hamstrings that are like frozen taffy, somebody with back injuries and arthritis who needs a more soothing therapeutic style class, or somebody looking for stress relief and more spiritual aspects of yoga; the benefits are abundant and endless. Hopefully you’ll feel good, calm and inspired after any class you choose.
Do you have a favorite breakfast for weekday mornings?
I’m often running around (morning is my favorite workout time) or teaching yoga, so I decide based on time. When I do have at least 20 minutes I whip up my favorite scrambled eggs served with mashed avocado. I also like baking an egg in an avocado or mashing avocado on toast. There’s an obvious avocado theme going on here — love that fruit. Avocado-banana smoothies, yes, those too. That’s what I make when I have 10 minutes and running out the door. Smoothies sound so boring, but you have to get crafty with them. My fave recipe:
Banana-Cocoa Smoothie: 1 frozen banana (in chunks) + handful ice cubes + 4-6 ounces almond milk (which I make myself when I can) + 1/2 avocado scooped out + 2 tablespoons (or more) plain Icelandic or Greek-style yogurt + 1 tablespoon raw cacao powder + 1 tablespoon cocoa nibs + 2-3 medjool dates or honey for sweetness
I also sip on a glass of chia seed water with some molasses, a teaspoon or so, and fresh squeezed lemon (for extra boost of iron) for a high-powered breakfast.
For people trying to eat healthier without dieting, what are the first changes they should make?
This tends to be very individual, but I feel that a great starting point is to eliminate processed foods or foods that aren’t real, like Doritos and Twinkies. Think about it. Do apples need a label with an ingredient list? No, they’re just apples. But a box of something that’s in a package needs a label to explain to us what’s in it. If you’re reading a short story (i.e. a paragraph) of ingredients, you’re probably grabbing a processed food. Granted, I’m a real person who likes a macaroon and cupcake every once in a while. I believe in real food but also in the occasional treat—but I prefer that it be made from scratch.
Once you gut your kitchen, you clean your gut, literally. I’m not an all-or -nothing kind of person, and I don’t expect you to be either. However, sometimes cold turkey works. If you have to chuck all the food out of your kitchen to start feeling good, I think it’s worth a lifetime of health. Once you clean the cabinets and fridge, you can hit the grocery store and stock ingredients such as spices, fresh fruits, veggies and most importantly health-supportive foods in your kitchen.
After you’ve stocked your kitchen, find recipes that use those ingredients. Start using a new ingredient or food each week and have at least 5 staple meals that you rotate through and use the leftovers for lunches and breakfast. Build on this by finding staple breakfasts, lunches and dinners and keep a handy file in the kitchen for “go-to” meals. Make a roasted butternut squash salad one night with a side of steamed tempeh with a tahini/peanut sauce and wrap that up in a burrito the next day. Learn the basics of food prep and meal making, and you’re off to a good start.
Since I’m a yoga teacher and nutritionist, I also recommend being mindful, literally, about eating. If you’re a multi-tasker, which we all tend to be this day and age, then there’s a chance you’re not really aware of when you’re hungry versus full versus really enjoying that quinoa burger. If you’re shoveling food into your mouth while driving, texting, talking on the phone or any other distraction, then you’re not being mindful. Breathe between bites and eat in a peaceful environment if you can. This seems so obvious but it’s amazing how challenging it is. Eating like a yogi a very different concept.
How do you stay away from processed foods?
Unfortunately for me I always get some sort of belly ailment after eating processed foods. I was told I had IBS (irritable bowel syndrome) in my 20’s. I used to drink soda, eat chips, the packaged mac and cheese but never really felt as vibrant and energetic as I do now. Once and awhile I stray and eat some french fries and that’s okay. But I am also that abnormal girl that honestly loves kale, tempeh, avocado pudding (pictured above), dates and a fresh pressed vegetable juice for a snack. I feel fortunate that I truly love healthy foods. The fact that I’m very active and have been since I was a teenager probably helps, too. An active lifestyle cannot be supported with processed foods.
When late-afternoon hunger kicks in, what’s your favorite snack?
I love a fuji apple with a few scoops of almond butter smeared on it, a half an avocado scooped right out of the rind or a warm hemp milkshake by combining 1 cup hemp milk + 1 banana + a few soaked almonds and dates with cinnamon and cardamom to taste. Sometimes hunger is really thirst, so I’ll have a green juice for a burst of energy late afternoon as well.
Which ingredients do you always reach for when whipping together a quick dinner?
Lately I make a big batch of quinoa then change the toppings during the week. I’ll make it Greek style and throw in kalamata olives, arugula, feta, tomatoes and boat loads of veggies then top that with grilled chicken. Making a big batch of some sort of grain is a great way create meals quickly. Otherwise I always have organic tofu, eggs, chicken and fresh vegetables that I grill, roast or steam on hand. I love grilled tofu in nori seaweed stuffed with sliced cucumber, avocado and a tahini sauce (make a few of these for a meal). I also enjoy breakfast for dinner, like scrambled eggs, burrito style.
My house always has the assembly line for a big salad. You just have to learn how to make it mouthwatering. Try baby kale vs. iceberg lettuce, replace cucumbers with jicama, and instead of Italian dressing make your own carrot-ginger dressing. Add to that grated beets for color and a poached egg for protein, and you’ve got yourself a seriously awesome salad.