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BY THE TIME Maria Hines decided she had to pay closer attention to what she was putting into her body, it was screaming at her.

Aches. Pains. Strains.

“At first I chalked it up to getting old — and spending too much time in my 20s burning the candle at both ends,” says the 41-year-old chef-owner of three certified-organic Seattle restaurants, Tilth, Golden Beetle and Agrodolce.

“I figured if I’m going to keep up with the work hard/play hard thing, something is going to have to give, and some things are going to have to improve,” says the avid trail runner, rock climber, weight lifter and yoga practitioner. “I needed to find a way to take care of myself, to cut down on feeling beat-up all the time. So I started studying nutrition.”

That was five years ago, Hines says of her decision to eat mindfully and drink carefully. Today, at 5 feet tall, she weighs just under 100 pounds — of pure muscle. Having lost 30 pounds and gained an appetite for healthy foods, she says, “I’m the fittest I’ve ever been in my life.”

These days she’s far more likely to have a bottle of water at her elbow than a Pabst Blue Ribbon. And instead of downing a hunk of rich, fatty meat (a favorite) she’ll crumble a single piece of Skagit River Ranch bacon over a kale Caesar.

For knowledge and inspiration, Hines turned to “Nutrition for Dummies” (don’t laugh, she says, “it’s a great book”), the guidebooks of sports nutritionist Nancy Clark (, a slew of vegan cookbooks and chef Charlie Trotter’s “Raw.”

While she doesn’t adhere to a particular diet, she’s learned how to build a strong body umpteen different ways, starting with a breakfast of steel-cut oatmeal or muesli with dried fruit and nuts. “I’ll soak that in almond milk overnight, mix in flaxseed for joint health and chia seed for protein — it’s super-easily digestible.”

Her smartest trick, she says, is eating small portions of healthy foods, frequently. “Pack your lunch — and don’t forget the snacks!” In her lunchbox you’ll find pint-size Mason jars fitted with plastic screw-top lids (found at Fred Meyer).

She favors smoothies made with fresh or frozen-in-season fruits puréed with kale, flaxseed and chia seed. Or a purée of raw carrots, cucumbers, celery and cauliflower. She’s crazy for whole grains like quinoa, given a Moroccan accent when she cooks a big batch in carrot juice and seasons it with salt, pepper, chopped mint, parsley and cilantro, a hit of harissa and extra virgin olive oil.

“Even though I’m eating healthy, I still like complicated flavors.”

Who needs Cheetos when you can have Organic Valley Stringles? And why settle for Pringles when you can roast fingerling potatoes, which she eats cold in the car driving from one restaurant to another.

Trying to lay off the heavy cream? Boil cauliflower till al dente then purée it, says Hines, who turns that into a low-cal soup with the addition of salt, white pepper and the water it’s been boiled in. Garnish with truffle oil or good extra-virgin olive oil. You can even use the cauliflower purée to thicken clam chowder.

When Hines gets a craving for sweets, she dips a spoon into a jar of local preserves or whipped honey.

“I am definitely no saint,” says the chef, who occasionally reaches into the bulk bin of Theo milk chocolate at Tilth. “I have, like, a half-ounce. I don’t bury my head in there, though that would be awesome!”

Nancy Leson is a freelance food writer. Reach her at Benjamin Benschneider is a Pacific NW magazine staff photographer.