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Secrets and Recipes from 'The Biggest Loser' Nutritionist

By , SparkPeople Blogger
Editor's note: We recently received an email from Cheryl Forberg, the nutritionist for NBC's hit show The Biggest Loser. She had read Coach Jen's post and wanted to share some more information about the eating habits of contestants. We invited Cheryl to write a guest blog for the dailySpark, and she happily accepted! Please welcome Cheryl to the dailySpark.

By Cheryl Forberg, RD
Though we try to educate as well as inspire (and entertain) each week on The Biggest Loser, as a nutritionist and a chef, I personally wish I had more time to share nutrition and cooking advice with our viewers. Though I can't explain the entire eating plan in the space of this blog, I can begin my telling you about my role with the show and share some of the insights and weight loss secrets I've learned during the last seven seasons.

My first contact with the contestants is when they are selected to fly to Los Angeles for a physical exam and a final interview, just before they learn whether they'll become a cast member for the new season. During their physical exam, I conduct a comprehensive nutrition consultation with each contestant to discuss their weight history and learn about their typical eating habits and preferences.

Here are some typical patterns of the contestants BEFORE the show that I have identified from my nutrition consultations:
  • very low (to no) water consumption
  • high soft drink consumption; when regular (non-diet) drinks are consumed, this amount sometimes actually meets (or exceeds) their entire daily calorie requirement -- from beverages alone!
  • very few servings of fruit and vegetables
  • lots of white stuff (white flour, white sugar, white pasta, white rice) and little to no whole grains
  • little to no exercise
  • lots of processed food and fast foods
  • low calcium/dairy intake
  • skipping meals (especially breakfast and snacks)
  • not planning ahead; eating on the run; standing up; in the car; at the desk

We generate a calorie "budget" for each contestant based on body composition testing and a physical exam. Those calorie budgets range from approximately 1,100 for a smaller woman to 2,400 for a big guy.

Here is a sample 1,500 calorie menu from our new book.
From The Biggest Loser 30-Day Jump Start: Lose Weight, Get in Shape, and Start Living the Biggest Loser Lifestyle Today!
Like a typical Biggest Loser day, this dayfeatures three meals and two snacks, plenty of fruit and vegetables, whole grains, fiber, lean protein, healthy fats and exemplifies EATING (not drinking) calories with exception of milk and a smoothie (made with yogurt and dairy that contains 25% of daily calcium intake )

Day 19 (1,530 calories)
Omelet: 1 whole egg, 2 egg whites, 1/4 cup chopped (roasted, if desired) yellow bell pepper, 2 tablespoons sautéed red onion, 1/2 teaspoon chopped thyme, and 1 teaspoon olive oil
1 cup fresh blueberries with 1 teaspoon ground flaxseed and 1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 Thomas’ Light Whole Grain English Muffin, toasted
8 ounces green tea, ice water, or fat-free milk
2 servings (1 recipe) Frosty Pumpkin Smoothie
5 ounces halibut, poached, topped with 1/2 cup halved cherry tomatoes, 1 tablespoon chopped black olives, and 1 teaspoon minced basil
2 cups mixed arugula-and-spinach salad with 3 olives, sliced; 1 tablespoon sunflower seeds (or ground flaxseed); and 1 tablespoon fat-free or low-fat vinaigrette
8 ounces fat-free milk
8 ounces green tea or ice water
2-inch wedge honeydew
2 ounces thinly sliced turkey breast
4 almonds
5 ounces skinless roast chicken breast
1/2 cup roasted sweet potato
1 cup steamed green beans
8 ounces ice water or chamomile tea
Vanilla Poached Pear
(Find the recipes here.)

The contestants receive their calorie budgets, and I introduce them to the Biggest Loser eating plan and explain the importance of food journals. Keeping a food journal is KEY to a successful weight loss plan. It helps you identify times that you eat certain things, allowing you to learn from your eating patterns. It is imperative to keep track of the number of calories you take in (and burn off through exercise) each day, especially when you're just getting started. For people who are on the computer regularly, an online tracker can be very helpful. But since no one is front of the computer continuously, it's a good idea to carry around a small tablet to record every bite and sip you take. It's easy to forget the small "tastes" we have throughout the day, and the calories can add up quickly.

The contestants complete food journals every single day. I analyze every one of them every day and share my results with the trainers and the Biggest Loser medical expert team. We look to see that they are meeting their calorie goals each day. We also look at the balance of those calories to ensure they're getting the right amounts of complex carbohydrates (whole grains, fruits and vegetables), lean proteins (chicken, turkey, beans and legumes, lean dairy), healthy fats (nuts, seeds, olive oil, avocado) as well as micronutrients such as calcium.

The kitchen at the Ranch is well stocked with all of these foodsI wouldn't call them uncommon foods, but I would say that many of these foods were unfamiliar to many of the contestants prior to arriving at the Ranch. Many of them ate very few fruits and vegetables and whole grains. At the Ranch, they eat only whole grains, and lots of fruits and vegetables – four cups per day is the goal (4 cups total -- combined fruits and vegetables.)

We teach contestants to like eating fruits and vegetables by sharing recipes, cooking tips and ideas about fruits and vegetables they may not have tried.

I took some of the contestants on a grocery store tour a few weeks ago, and most of them had never tasted jicama -- they loved it. Grilled vegetables easily add layers of rich flavor without adding much fat. They can be served with any meal, and leftovers can be added to an omelet or salad the next day.

Fresh fruit can be an expensive addition to the budget these days, but frozen fruit is a wonderful and often more affordable option for many. Frozen fruit can be tossed in a smoothie, and frozen berries can be thawed and stirred into oatmeal.

The longer each contestant is able to stay on the Ranch, the more time they will have to learn about a whole new way of shopping, eating, cooking--living. Many of the contestants tell me they've tried so many "diets" before. The reason they feel this plan is so successful for them is because there is so much education provided in terms of what they're eating and why.

Understanding that makes it easier to stick with the plan. The BL plan includes such a wide variety of ingredients as well as tips on how to prepare these foods – there's something here for everyone, and it's not easy to get bored with the large variety of choices. The most important point is that this combination of high-nutrient, high fiber foods provides the highest quality calories. These foods support a strong immune system, promote healthy blood sugar levels as well as cardiovascular health.

Though it is true that there's no "white stuff" at the Ranch (no white flour, white sugar, white rice, or white pasta), the Biggest Loser eating plan does have a small budget of "extra calories" each day for an occasional splurge of a favorite treat.

Those treats include pudding made with fat-free milk, frozen yogurt, and popsicles. It wouldn't work if we told the contestants they can never eat their favorite foods again. We do however hope that some of their favorite foods will change!

While at the Ranch, contestants have access to a great kitchen. They learn from each other and from guest chefs how to prepare anything from an egg white omelet to stir fries and salads. The kitchen is well-stocked, and they do prepare their own meals for the most part, so this is another part of the learning curve for them. As a chef as well as their nutritionist, I also share insights with the contestants in terms of how to add layers of flavor to their favorite dishes while minimizing the addition of added fats. I also speak with the contestants regularly after they are eliminated to help keep them on track as they adjust to the "real world" at home.

I know the show is inspiring a lot of people – it's airing in ninety countries. I hope we can increase the nutrition education we provide. I try to supplement that with my weekly blog.

Do you watch The Biggest Loser? Share your thoughts about the eating plan and Cheryl's blog.

Photos and recipes courtesy of Cheryl Forberg, all rights reserved.

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Thanks for the article, very informative. I love the trainers and have a couple of their workout dvds. Wish they would feature YOU for a few minutes on every episode instead of some of the unnecessary drama.

My only "gripe" with the biggest loser is that when a "normal" person has a 1-2 pound a week weight loss they may feel bad that they dont' get the big numbers like the contestants on the ranch can. The show kind of downplays how many hours they work out a day.

Hope you can share more in the future! Report
I watch the biggest loser every week. However I'm having trouble reaching the calories to be eaten. However I am losing inches in my waist and hips and neck. I exercise 2 hours a day. some days I take off. I'm glad I'm losing inches but would like to lose the weight. Report
Love the biggest looser. I know I cannot loose the amount of weight they do weekly. I am loggin all food and wondered what they ate. 100 calories I've done that no weight loss, I've increased no weight loss. Now I am doing low carbs under 50 finally hit the jackpot. Not sure why I hit a 6 month plateau but glad I am finally back to loosing. will it keep me looing probably not. Report
I love Biggest Loser. I have several of the workout dvd's and I have this book. I have made several of the recipes from it so far and like them.
The amount of time they spend working out and their calorie intake is still confusing to me.
I am sure there are things that go on "behind the scenes" that they do not show us. I was disappointed when the producers falsified information about The Marathon that was run. I will still watch the show but I will never believe everything. Report
i am intrigued that a standard day on the BL nutrition plan has each person consuming 1530 calories. right now my sparkpeople estimated calorie range is 1200-1550 and i am only working out 1 hour a day five days a week. perhaps i'm just confused about the amount of time they spend working out, but that seems like a drastically low caloric intake for (what i assume is) such high amounts of exercise. i suppose this is how they can lose 10+ pounds in a week - their body is burning everything that is entering it. i'm glad that there is a medical/nutritional team supervising each player through this! Report
I have watched TBL since its beginning. Last night's show where Aubrey was sent home and showed us how hard it is to do everything correctly once there was right on target. How many of us wish we could take 3 months and have a trainer, great food, and lose the weight that has plagued us for years! Report
thanks for blogging with us! I really enjoy the biggest loser and love hearing the tips, thanks for taking the time to share it with us!!! Report
I've only really started watching the show this year, but this article is amazingly timed! I was just wondering this morning about the nutrition aspect because they only show food showcased when they do product placements. I definitely would like to see more about the diets on the air! Report
I am suprised that they ave the contestants eating so little when they are working so much. I have no clue how they have the energy to do that! I'm glad I'm doing it on my own at home. So I can skip a workout if I'm not feeling well and I can eat enough to feel satisified! Report

Thank you for sharing this information. As a Weight Watchers employee and follower, I can relate to the strategies that you are using to teach the contestants a lifestyle change.

PS: I too LOVE the show. I so want to see each contestant succeed. My favorite part is when we see the eliminated contestant and the progress they make when they return home.

"little debbie" Report
This is the first season I have watched The Biggest Loser and it has become one of my favorite shows. I have found that I've become attached to all of the people on the show and I cheer for them when they've accomplished something and feel bad when they are disappointed. It's an inspiration for me and now it's nice to have the info that Cheryl shared with us. I think the food choices they have are in line with the recipes and menus provided to us here at SparkPeople. Everything we need is here at our fingertips. Report
I love the Biggest Loser - so compelling, just have to watch it. I find it so amazing to see contestants lose so much weight - brilliant!! It was great to read the BLOG from Cheryl. Report
I enjoy this show. I find it inspiring but frustrating. I agree with everyone who has said that more behind the scenes, particularly nutrition info, would really add to the concept and actually be helpful to viewers. I understand somewhat the need to create the drama and suspense to keep people watching----but I think most people who really want the info would keep watching anyway. Instead of 30 minutes of having contestants weigh in, accomplish it in 15 and add some more substance!!! One of the things I question is how they are able to work out that long and that hard for what appears to be everyday. I know after a good workout I'm somewhat sore----and that your muscles HAVE to have recovery time. So to know really what they are doing and when could shed some light for so many people if the show had more of that kind of approach.

That said, the blog was interesting and I hope there will be more info to come. Report
I agree that the calorie counts seem very low. I'm assuming that because the contestants have not only nutritional experts but medical experts watching them, that they are being taken care of.

I love this show, not only for the drama and personalities, but because it gives people hope. I love how both Bob and Jillian this season said that losing the type of weight these folks lose is not doable or advised at home.

This is an interesting article and I'm glad to hear that it is a sensible food plan that we can all follow. Still, I have never been able to understand how the contestants can lose something like 10 lbs in a WEEK. Doing the math (calories in/calories out) it just doesn't add up, especially when I see that they are eating a sensible, healthy diet - as opposed to an extreme fad diet. Even with exercising, I'd think there would be a limit to how much exercise an obese, out of shape person can do in a day so that doesn't explain it either. Please tell me how I can sensibly lose 10 lbs in a week....please!!!

(I do eat right and exercise daily) Report
I love watching Biggest Loser. I think most people who watch it realize that it is a very controlled situation, that isn't reflective of the average person's life. And they emphasize that on the show a lot. Jillian recently said (during a show) that although most people at home wouldn't lose 10 pounds every week like the contestants on the show, that a 1-2 pound weekly weight loss is typical.

I also watch Jillian McKeith's "You Are What You Eat," and her diet seems a bit extreme to me because it is mostly vegetarian. I don't know if I could do that! But her clients also commit to the program for 8 weeks and realize that other foods are introduced after the initial 8-week regimen.

Biggest Loser is definitely a typical reality TV show, in that it uses the temptations and challenges to cause friction between the contestants, but the underlying message, I believe, is good. The contestants are there to lose weight, get healthier, and learn better eating and exercise habits. I agree with those on this blog who say that it would be nice to have more air time about the nutrition that they are taught behind-the-scenes, as that is what Jillian McKeith does on her show.

Great blog! Report
What I wouldn't give to be a contestant on the BL(for the hands on knowledge),I just couldn't go world-wide with them weigh-in tops the Ladies have to wear.I don't feel a person needs to be humiliated like that.
A person can read books and/or google 24/7 but as for myself I just know I could lose these unhealthy pounds if in my area we had a weightloss campus you wouldn't stay there it would be just for the purpose of learning lifestyle changes for weightloss and healthy living.A Chef/Nutritionist and Exercise Instructor just like the BL has for you to learn hands on.
Of course if you think about it "nothing" will be anything like the BL is.We just love it here in our home.
Sorry about all the rambling before you got my simple answere....LOL

Thank you Cheryl for letting us know what some of the things the contestants go through. I'm glad to hear they get more help than I thought. I love BL and find it inspirational that WOMEN can be the BIGGEST LOSER! Allie has shown us that. I love her for that!! Report
VERY GOOD BLOG Thanks! Thanks for the link to your blog as well. That is helpful. Though I eat MUCH better than most of your contestants when they first arrive, still am learning! Report
I love the biggest loser. Yes it could give more info on the workings that go on behind the scenes, but it sure is an inspiring show. I hate having to wait for the time in between shows. Thanks for giving us all something to look forward to! Report
Great blog - sounds like BL & SP could team up.... I don't watch BL (I did during an earlier season when we still had TV) but I think it would be great to include more on the nutrition/cooking component - bring in the Food Network crowd! Report
I agree with Newmoondesign, if anyone works out 6-8 hours a day, they have to show some results. However, it is not healthy to do this daily and would be most impossible to continue in the "real" world once a contestant is brought back to their homes, jobs and families. I love the show, but do realize that the large weight losses are a result of training sessions most people couldn't take advantage of in the first place. Report
Thank you for the peek inside The Biggest Loser. I do agree with those who posted about those silly in-show commercials. Yes, TV shows have to make money, but I think they make plenty of money on the commercials they show throughout the episode. Is it really necessary to integrate commercials into the show??? Please - show more REAL healthy food and not "Extra" gum. Report
I don't watch the show...but not for any particular reason, just because I'm not a big TV watcher. I found this article really interesting, and it's nice to know that I've been doing a lot of the right things nutritionally even before I joined Spark. My only confusion now is that I recently read an article in a magazine that said that the contestants work out anywhere from 6-8 hours a day and they are only taking in 1500 or so calories? Here on Spark my fitness tracker has been yelling at me to up my calories since I've been working out for 1 1/2 to 2 hours per day. I upped them when I was working out for 45mins per day, but now I seem to be hitting a plateau, and I'm afraid to up the calories anymore since I'm already not losing much. I'm just totally confused about the ratio of energy expended -vs- calories consumed.

Dana Report
I cannot stress how excited I am to try that Pumpkin Smoothie! I think I have a pumpkin flavor addiction (especially in the fall). That will be a great substitute for all of the pumpkin pies my husband makes. ;-)

I love the Biggest Loser... especially in the summer when they run full day marathons. It's so motivating. The trainers are a huge inspiration & what I wouldn't give to have one boss me around 24 hours a day.

I agree completely with her eating plan. My husband and I don't have any soda in the house & always buy wheat over white breads, pastas, pizza dough, flours, rice, etc., etc., etc. I love the idea of having a recipe a week on the show. I know Rocco comes on from time to time to show them how to cook a healthy meal, but even a smoothie recipe would be great! Report
I LOVE Biggest Looser! If I'm at work, I have my family record it for me. And I dont look to the show, to show me "how" to loose weight, I use it to see, anything is possible! The transformations are amazing. You see the contestants struggle, fall, and pick themselves back up. Yes, I know it is a very controlled situation, and not something the average person can accomplish in the same time frame, but you see "IT" is possible, and that motivates me! Report
I have seen the shows in the previous seasons but I tend to not watch them on a weekly basis. The idea of the show is wonderful however for those of us trying to better our lives at home, the show does not provide any information besides who is getting cut from the show that week. I would love the show to share some more information to the viewers each week so that we can do the same as what they are doing. (for example, the nutrition) Report
Watching the Biggest Loser can be interesting, but I'm not sure if anyone should model themselves after it. Everyone watching tends to forget that WEIGHT LOSS IS NOT A RACE. It comes from a gradual adaptation to healthier lifestyle. We are told here on SparkPeople that 1-2 lbs per week is a healthy amount of weight loss. How much are the people on TV losing? TV shows like The Biggest Loser can be a good motivational tool to some extent but really should be looked at as entertainment, not education. I prefer when my entertainment doesn't remind me that I'm fat and that society is obsessed with me losing weight so that I can fit their standard of perfection. Report
The show has zero appeal for me, but I hardly ever watch TV. I have to say that the pre-BL habits sound pretty familiar -- except the skipping meals and the soda. They were all mine too!
-LL Report
I've heard Jillian talk in her radio show how they determine the amount of calories for the contestants, and the main point seems to be that for people with a lot of weight to lose, they can closely monitor the contestants and drastically cut their calories without adverse effects. However, when the contestants start to get closer to their ideal weights, they adjust their daily calorie budget up accordingly. Maybe Cheryl will write something on her blog to explain it better sometime. Report
I love watching the biggest loser. I don't think its realistic for most people though. 1100 calories? that is not enough? Plus, most people don't get to exercise and eat like that in the "real world". I wish they taught more realistic things. I love the concept though and I know tons of people are motivated by it though. Report
I love the Biggest Loser. I wish they had more on nutrition as part of the show. Report
I take the best and leave the rest. Great blog. Thank you so much. Tara scares me. Can't wait until she is out of our lives. At least she did not beat Kristin to the first 100 lbs lost on campus. They should have given her more than the weight they did. Report
I do not care for this show at all . . . there are many things we are left to wonder about. It seems like sensationalism to me . . . after all it is entertainment! T.V. Report
I am addicted to Biggest Looser, I love everything about it, it's very inspiring and motivational. It was nice to hear about the behind the scenes kind of stuff that we don't get to see. Thank you for sharing this information with all of us.
Thanks for the blog. It would make the show much more informative if they could have you show 1 or 2 "tips" every episode, instead of some of the drama they seem to emphasize lately. I still watch the shows, but I tune in for the trainer tips and other tidbits I can use in my own day-to-day live. Report
Love the show, and I think it's great that you were sparked into being a guest blogger! Thanks for the behind the scenes look at what goes on with the contestants nutrition. Report
I love the BL!!! Report
Hey Cheryl...thanks for stopping by and sharing with Spark People members some of the nutritional guidelines that you use on The Biggest Loser (TBL).
Luckily I have always been a veggie eater...but I was eating all the other bad stuff too.
Since I joined SP, I've turned my life around. I'm better about my food choices and I've increased my exercise as well.
Of all the reality shows that are out there...I think TBL is the best. You are doing so much help to help overweight people gain their lives back.
Can't get any better than that.
I would really like to get my younger brother on your show...but all I get are excuses as to why he can't. Anyway, that's another story. I keep praying that he will 'wake up' and make a real effort to change his ways, but he has to want it. Report
And another thing: a HUGE part of our problem today is the FOOD INDUSTRY and their advertising and tactics. Our FDA should be ashamed that they allow them to operate the way they do!!! [Hand-in-glove!!!] Report
I LOVE the biggest Loser...I have started watching it about 3 seasons ago..had problems with some of the contestants last season but really LOVE this season. While some think of it as exploitation, I think of it as inspiration. If it wasn't for these 300-400 pound people moving out of their comfort zones, I don't think I would have done a thing to improve my life.

I have started working out consitantly, eating MUCH better than I used (at least a lot more consciously than before) and even started RUNNING and am planning on completing a 5k this year. I own a couple of the books and love the recipies and tips in there. I love the fact that the Nutritionist is sharing information for us.

Thank you!! Report
The only thing I've ever really had issue with on BL regarding nutrition is the TEMPTATION situation, and the spots for some prepackaged foods with fake sugar and other garbage. :P

But it seems the actual daily nutrition habits are healthy ones and I'm glad for the times when the BL can take the opportunity to highlight THOSE moments. Report
I am a BL Fan and I won't be perfect or master the healthy lifestyle for some time yet but I have learned so much valuable info from SP, BL and many others, in just the last couple months my life has been changed for the better. I've joined a gym, started drinking twice as much water, eating healthier, better choices...I am so thankful for this blog, Bl, Sp and encouraging words from so many others...Even though commercials and advertisements are annoying they are needed in most cases for show/site survival. It is important to ignore the bad to benefit from the good! Report
I really appreciate Cheryl Forberg's time and effort to respond to Coach Jen's post. Her info is very informative. I hope that they decide to include more of this info on the tv show.

I have a project for any of us SP's who'd be interested. Why don't we write to BL and let them know we'd like to see more of this, that the show would hold more folks' interest that way. Who's on board? Report
I love this blog. I did not know this info about BL. I honestly didn't think they were even being taught about nutrition really. So it is reassuring to know that they are getting great info while there. I think them learning how to cook these foods and learn to like them is the key! Great article. I look forward to your future articles. How about a show for those of us that aren't obese but want to go from a little overweight to a completely toned makeover! I'll be the first contestant! Report
I love this show! I watch it regularly to get the trainer/nutritional tips. I too wish they would show more of the food changes/dietary tips as well. I know they would certainly be more helpful for me. Report
THis was such an informative article! I didn't know that the ranch eliminated white flour, white sugar, white rice, and white potatoes! This is the "diet" I have stressed to all my friends. Most of them come back with "they don't like vegs!" It is bad habits like these that have been the problem all along. At the ranch, exercise is for hours.....and while it may not be possible for all of us to do this on a daily schedule, it just goes to show you that if you are willing to put the time and effort, it will pay off. For people who have given up on themselves, this is important. I think this show stresses this point. Report
Thanks! Love the show - no matter what anyone says. Report
Thanks for the blog..and thanks for The Biggest Loser Show.....Some of the comments on this blog dumbfound me. I don't think these people are being exploited any more than when I go to the gym and workout in front of people there...or walk down the street where people are watching.
People make choices everyday whether they will live this day healthy or not ...I see it on the message boards and blogs here on SP the Biggest Loser show should not be blamed for their choices later any more than Spark People should be blamed for mine.
I am a two hundred plus woman and sparks says my calories should be 1200- 1500...these contestants have not eaten healthy for... ever...they are taught to eat to fuel their bodys with the nutrients their bodys need for the first time in their lives, instead of the trash they have eaten for most of their lives. Their metabilisms are so low that their bodies store everything they first. They are constantly monitoring there bodies and changing the diets as their bodies adjust to the new life they have begun but here we are sitting back in our lounge chairs....playing quarterback and making judgements on assumptions. To each his own but I personally think this show is changing lives for the makes me think I can do this and it motivates me to push through the tough times. Blessings, Grace Report
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