Talking to the Experts: The Biggest Loser Dietitian Cheryl Forberg

The NBC show The Biggest Loser has helped contestant lose hundreds of pounds. We talked to dietitian Cheryl Forberg about her role on the show.
cheryl forberg

The NBC hit show The Biggest Loser has helped contestants lose hundreds of pounds and motivate a country in dire need of weight loss. There’s a lot that goes on behind the scenes, including many hours of nutrition and food counseling provided by registered dietitian Cheryl Forberg.

Q: What was your role as the dietitian on The Biggest Loser?

As a member of the medical expert team, I participated in a week of screening physicals each season to help select the cast. I met with each prospective cast member to discuss their eating patterns, food preferences, weight loss/weight gain history to help me create personally tailored eating plans for each of them.

Q: I understand that you have both a culinary and nutrition background. Could you tell us about that?

Yes, I am a chef first, nutritionist second. I attended a sixteen month program in San Francisco to attain my chef diploma (formerly California Culinary Academy currently a Cordon Bleu school). I won an apprenticeship in France upon graduation and studied in restaurants in Champagne, Alsace and the Loire Valley. I returned to San Francisco to open Wolfgang Puck's Postrio restaurant and moonlighted as a private chef to clientele, most of whom had some sort of dietary restriction -- low fat, low sugar, low calorie. At the time there were few chefs with nutritional education and few dietitians with culinary training. I taught myself to adapt my classic French training to meet the needs of my clients. After several years as a private chef, I decided to legitimize what I was doing and returned to school at UC Berkeley to attain my BS in Nutrition and Clinical Dietetics and become a registered dietitian.

Q: How did competition on the show help participants lose weight? How can people re-create that sense of competition with their own fitness goals?

First of all, we had a very motivated group to begin with. Though most hadn't exercised (or eaten well) in a while, they all knew that with the variety of weight-related symptoms/conditions they'd developed (such as sleep apnea, type-two diabetes, fertility issues, heart disease, high cholesterol, high blood pressure), that their years were literally numbered if they didn't make radical changes. Though a $250,000 prize is certainly icing on the cake, winning their life back was the real incentive and very much worth fighting for.

Q: The contestants on the show have a lot of help from a registered dietitian and trainers, what tools are they provided with so they can continue to get healthy or maintain once they leave the show?

The trainers certainly teach them a variety of different cardio and strength training options. It's important to find an exercise you really love or you're not going to stick with it. The gym at the Ranch has state-of-the-art equipment and the trainers are always teaching new things in and out of the gym to keep everyone interested, engaged and ideally increasing their muscle mass while shedding pounds.

I introduced them to a new way of shopping, cooking and eating. I also taught them how to weigh, measure and journal their food intake while at the Ranch. One of the many things you didn't see was that I reviewed every contestant’s food journal every single day which was an incredible teaching tool for learning about portion sizes, meal timing and accountability. I still get calls from contestants I haven't seen in years. They tell me when the pounds start to come back the first thing they do is pull out their food journals again.

Q: You’ve seen 250+ actual contestants on the Biggest Loser. What are the top 5 dietary issues that you found amongst these individuals?
  1. Drinking too many of their calories: One gentleman had 2 packs of regular Dr. Pepper each day AND a gallon or two of sweet tea . . . before a single bite of food. For his height, he was meeting his calorie needs with his beverages alone.
  2. Skipping meals: Some cast members actually had only one meal a day before they joined the show. Many people mistakenly believe skipping meals promotes weight loss, but skipping meals does the opposite: it promotes weight gain.
  3. Not planning ahead: This includes eating on the run, in the car, at their desk or standing up. One of my gentlemen chose his dinners each night by the drive thru with the shortest line. You must plan ahead and be prepared. Have healthy snacks in your desk, in your car, in your purse and in your house. That way if you're stuck and starving, the only choice you make will be a good one.
  4. Too much white stuff: White flour, white sugar, white pasta, white rice means plenty of calories, and the only real nutrition is via fortification. Stick with whole grains, breads, tortillas, crackers, cereals. Try something new each week. You'll be surprised at how much more flavor and texture these items have.
  5. Prioritizing everyone and everything over themselves and their own health: They make sure their children have vegetables, everything's right with work, spouse/partner, house, kids, school and put themselves last. If you don't make time for you and your health, you can't take care of anyone else.
Q: When going food shopping, what are 3 things you tell people to do?

I think everyone's heard about shopping the perimeter of the store by now. I love to encourage:

  1. Bulk bins: No fancy labels or packaging means the savings are passed on to you; plus it’s a fabulous way to try new ingredients, such as whole grains. Have a new quinoa recipe but don't know if you or your family likes quinoa? Bring a measuring cup in your purse and buy only the amount you need. If your family doesn't like quinoa (or bulgur or wild rice) then you're not stuck with a 2 pound bag. If they do like it, next time you can buy 4 cups or so and store it in a nice quart size jar (and not pay for packaging).
  2. Plan to shop for produce at least twice a week: Not used to eating a lot of fruits and veggies at your house? Don't go overboard and try to shop for the week in one trip - you'll have too much waste not really knowing how much you need for a week. Plus it won't be as fresh. The extra trip will be worth it as the flavor and nutrition will be better AND you'll have less (if any) waste.
  3. Try at least one new food each week: You may find a real time-saver or a new family favorite. Produce vendors usually love to let you taste a new tangerine or melon or herb. Likewise, the bulk bins are a great place to try something new. And if you're intimidated by an unfamiliar fish or lean cut of meat, ask the meat or fish department to tell you about it and any recommended ways to cook it.  Most people in the meat/fish department cook a lot of meat and fish at home.
Q: What are the top 3 cooking tips you find most helpful to lose weight?
  1. Flavor First! Steamed broccoli and grilled chicken may help you drop pounds but it's not a sustainable eating plan - too boring! You have to put FLAVOR FIRST. Having the right condiments, dressings and sauces on hand can turn a ho-hum meal into an extraordinary culinary experience. My favorite items to keep on hand include, salsa, capers, no-sugar fruit spreads, guacamole, horseradish, mustards galore, low-sodium soy sauce, Worcestershire sauce and I'm the Queen of homemade dressings, sauces, dips and “mayos.”
  2. Making extras or big batches: Whenever you cook, freeze half in individual containers. When hunger strikes you'll always have a cup of soup, a pasta dish or a scrumptious leftover to reheat in minutes or take with you. No excuses for visiting the drive thru!
  3. Always have a bowl of fresh fruit in sight: Keep containers in the fridge of freshly cut veggies to graze on or to quickly heat or sauté. Most of us eat mindlessly much more often than we realize. If you're going to graze anyway, feel good about it!
Q: After 7 years on the Biggest Loser, you decided to move on. How will you take your experiences from the show to help folks lose weight and win back their health?

With the show, I only focused on one segment of the weight loss spectrum—from the morbidly obese starting point to the point of maintenance (or almost there). At the end of each season I had to stop, circle back to start over again with a new season, never having enough time to dedicate myself fully to those who had achieved the lofty goal of reaching their maintenance weight, and helping them to stay there. Though I still want to share my weight loss expertise with a large audience, I'd also like to focus more on that slippery slope we call maintenance and show people that eating well and staying there are not mutually exclusive.

I'm currently coaching a group of former Biggest Loser cast members about maintenance weight -- how to get and stay there. I'm also teaching a lot this year and I've nearly completed a media kitchen on my Napa farm to reach larger groups via podcasts and television.

Q: Is there a favorite Biggest Loser recipe you can share with us?

My cookbook Flavor First is based on everything I taught on the show including my philosophy: that the quality of the calories is just important as the quantity. I truly believe if we focus on that -- high quality calories loaded with fiber, lean proteins and good fats -- we'd be satisfied and satiated and the quantity would take care of itself.

quinoa salad
Apple-Cinnamon Breakfast Quinoa

This delicious, high-protein, gluten-free grain isn’t just for savory dishes. Quinoa is extremely versatile and can be used in a variety of dishes, from breakfast to dessert. To sweeten the quinoa, add 1 to 2 tablespoons agave nectar, honey or maple syrup.

Makes 4 (3/4-cup) servings
2 cups unsweetened plain or vanilla almond milk
1 cup dry quinoa, well rinsed (see note)
1 medium apple, diced
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
Pinch of salt
Garnish (optional)
1/4 cup dried currants
1/4 cup chopped toasted almonds or walnuts

In a 2-quart saucepan, heat the almond milk over medium-high heat. When the milk is almost boiling, stir in the quinoa, apple, and cinnamon and salt. Reduce the heat to a low simmer, partially cover, and simmer, stirring occasionally, for about 15 minutes, or until most of the milk has been absorbed. Remove from the heat. Stir in the vanilla, cover tightly, and let rest for 5 minutes. Fluff with a fork before serving. Garnish with currants and nuts, if desired.

Note: After measuring, rinse quinoa with cold water in a fine strainer to ensure that any saponins are removed. These plant chemicals can add a bitter taste to your cooked quinoa if not thoroughly rinsed away.

Per serving: 200 calories, 4 g total fat (0 g saturated), 0 mg cholesterol, 95 mg sodium, 35 g total carbohydrates (5 g sugars), 5 g fiber, 7 g protein

Reprinted from: FLAVOR FIRST by Cheryl Forberg, RD. Copyright © 2011 by Cheryl Forberg, RD. Permission granted by Rodale, Inc., Emmaus, PA 18098.

Cheryl Forberg, RD is a James Beard award-winning chef, former nutritionist for NBC's "The Biggest Loser" and NYT bestselling author. Her latest book is " Flavor First" (Rodale). She lives on a farm in Napa, California. For plenty of scrumptious recipes, check out her website or follow her on Twitter or Facebook.

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