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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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I smiled at the advice if you don't have regular use of a computer: "it's a good idea to carry around a small tablet to record every bite and sip you take"; I enjoy technology, actually was the first of my peers to buy a computer (commoder 64, in the 1980s) but do feel amused when people sometimes forget how we managed before - you could also use good old pen and paper! Report
I've never watched the show but of course being on sites like SP I've heard a lot about it, both good and bad. The menu sounds delicious. My only beef (haha) - it seems quite elaborate. Great if you're on a retreat like the BL farm, but not very practical for someone like me who leaves for work at 6am and returns at 5pm exhausted. Although I imagine the contestants learn to make simpler dishes too, or that they can just grab an apple and some cheese for a snack. Thanks for sharing! Report
I love BL. I would really love to see more information each week regarding nutrition and a weekly workout or exercise. Maybe a recipe to try for the week and a exercise for the week for the home audience to commit to. More nutirition and tips and less drama. I'll watch it regardless because I love to see the transformations - physically, emotionally and socially. Report
The Biggest Loser is my favorite show. I never miss it. I get so inspired watching it. Those people are amazing. Report
I have watched the Biggest Loser probably once (other show interfere)ha ha. The show is inspiriational though. Seems like the experts everywhere have a difference of opinion. I just remember that calorie in calorie out. If I eat 1500 Kcal a day I need to be burning at least 1/3 of that. Just find what works and shows progress and go with it. Report
I started watching last year and really enjoy watching the participants get smaller. I would LOVE to be working out with Jillian or Bob, and have access to the BL kitchen. I appreciate what you've shared Cheryl! Report
I don't watch reality TV shows. Report
Thanks, Cheryl! It's great to hear what goes on behind the scenes. My whole family has been watching this season's BL and we love it. It has motivated us to get more exercise and eat healthier. Report
I watch the show faithfully and am totally inspired by it. I did sign up for the BL web site and it was a waste of time. I have all the books and none of the recipes are listed as menu items. This site, so far, is sooooo much better. I'm looking forward to losing some weight! Report
I've been watching Biggest Loser since the very first season. I like to watch it while I work out. They are very inspirational Report
Don't watch that often. Report
I love watching the Biggest Loser...but I think it would be great if they show more of the nutritional side of the show so that people know what they should change in their diets Report
It would be so great to see this information actually on the show; it would help education so many people. The show's editing makes it look like exercise is the only key to losing weight (except for the random product endorsements you see in the kitchen), but there is so much more to it. Thanks for writing this blog! Report
"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."

PLEASE tell us what those right amounts are. Thanks! Report
i love the biggest loser. we even have it at work each year. we do it with money who ever loses the most percentage wins the money Report
I really enjoy watching the Biggest Loser. I think it would be really awesome if they would put in a segment of Cheryl grocery shopping with the contestants!
Thanks for writing a Daily Spark blog for us! Report
I love the biggest loser! Report
I love the Biggest Loser. I have learned a lot from the program and it does give me hope. Report
I enjoyed reading this. Report
Wow thank you for your time and lengthy blog. It is full of information. I got to say I love the show, I find my longest workouts come when the show is on, and I just keep going. I forget its 2 hours long at times. It really has motivated me to move, and get this under control. Ready your day of meals planned there, I love the omlete, got to say you pack them in with more variety than I do. Report
I love the Biggest loser! It is full of inspiration! Thanks for sharing a blog with us!! Report
I've read many times that it is not healthy for women to eat less than 1,200 calories per day. Biggest Loser says to eat 1,050. Should I add the number of calories that I burn through exercise to that? Example: 1,050 + 500 calories burned = 1,550. Please help me understand how many calories I should "really" eat. Thanks!! Report
Before I joined SparkPeople this was me:

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
Thank you, Cheryl! I really appreciate the valuable information that you shared. It's awesome that you were willing to write a blog to help benefit the Spark community. Thanks again for taking the time and sharing your tips, some of us need all the help we can get! Report
Thank you for the insight. I agree with many of the comments. I also love the Biggest Loser and wish it would focus more on diet strategies. I think it would inspire the viewers. For many of the viewers, getting trainers and intense exercise like the contestants is not feasible, so it's fun to watch, but not as easy to translate into our own lives. We can focus on increasing our exercise but will never be able to match what they do on the progam. However, fixing our diets to match the program IS feasible and I would love to see more of it. Report
Thanks for the insight. It helps to know that the people on the show start out at the same place we do. Also, thank you for the daily meal plan, it should help me to follow it in the future. The weight and food journal is the thing that I have the most trouble doing. I guess I need to make it my priority. Thank you. Report
I especially like to see some typical patterns of the contestants BEFORE the show, because we ALL can learn from that, what we do NOT want to be doing ourselves on our weight loss journeys.

I have watched some of this show, and when you get really "in to " the contestants and what they are going through, it is compelling. However, what I do NOT like is the impression of how EASY it is to lose HUGE amts. of weight in a short time. It is NOT, we all know that.

What I lDO like is that we NEED this kind of focus on weight loss today with America becoming BIGGER and BIGGER , and more and MORE unhealthy.

As a NURSE I see the results. I took care of a patient , 37, with diverticulitis, and a partial bowel resection ...something one should not expect at so YOUNG an age... but it has to stem from an unhealthy diet.

I hope to see BIG changes for members here, on the road to health and fitness, and a future of the LACK of needing more and more people in the health care field, to take care of so many who are dieing way too young of diseases that could be prevented!!!! Report
I enjoy BL and think that it is useful in raising consciousness of the problems that go along with obesity and also in demonstrating what an extreme focus on dealing with obesity related health states if an individual has time and resources devoted to that project without distraction.

I don't like the yelling and screaming of some of the trainers. I also don't think calories for anybody of the contestants' sizes (or anybody) should go below at the most 1200 but I do think the diet is healthy.

Recently the trainer "Bob" did some interview regarding his conversion to vegetarianism and how he helps contestants with that option if they wish, so possibly the show will feature more of that.

I do wish they would discuss the "diet" (e.g., way of eating) of the weight loss programs on the show in more detail and not just include a blatant commercial spot thinly disguised as a discussion of eating strategies for weight loss. That is so off putting and uncomfortable.

Ms. Forberg's cookbooks and recipes are great.

I realize this is an old thread. I don't think she is even with the show anymore, but could be wrong. Report
The thing that often bugged me with BL stuff is how vegetarian/vegan meals are almost never mentioned. It's never 'don't eat that beef burger - try this organic veggie burger instead' it's always replacing meat with meat. And, frankly, chicken isn't any healthier than beef. The cholesterol amounts are about the same, for instance, and chicken is notoriously bacteria ridden. Animal foods generally have saturated fat, cholesterol and are calorie dense. It is much much much easier to lose weight eating mostly or all plants. Better for your heart, too.

I'm not suggesting that the BL diet be switched to a vegan one (thought it'd be interesting to see! If was heavy enough, I'd totally try to get on the show, just to force them to come up with a vegan plan for me!) but I always feel sort of left out when the 'tips' involve switching one fatty animal product for another slightly less fatty one.

Legumes FTW! Report
i had some similar diet habits as the BL contestants. I find that just tracking the food i eat makes a signifigant difference in the way i eat. I now eat about 4 or 5 servings of veggies a day. And i have been exercising regurlarly. I want my body to be healthier. Weight loss helps with that, but is not my ultimate goal. I am happy with the weight i have lost, but am oh so grateful for the increased energy and stamina that i have. Thank you for your part in a show that helps to motivate me and that reminds me that i can eventually overcome the things about myself that i do not like. Report
thank you for the tips. I love the biggest loser show as I watch it all the time and can't wait for the new ones to come on. Report
Thank you Cheryl for sharing with us
I love the Biggest Loser!

Debbie Report
The Biggest Loser is awesome! Learning how to eat healthier is one of the reasons I'm a member of SP. I get overwhelmed in the kitchen and with cooking in general. I think I really have to learn / re-learn the basics in order to eat healthier. Thanks for the article!!! Report
The Biggest Looser is what inspired me to do something about loosing weight. I then joined Jillian's website to get started and learned about my Lifestyle changeing. In my search for a calorie counter I found SparkPeople. That was a little over a month ago and my goal is to become the biggest looser in my house :-) Report
What a great article. I think I'm going to try that 4 cups a day rule! :) Report
I am a huge fan of the show and it is very motivating. I try to watch it while on the treadmill. I wish they would show/provide more info on the food the contestants eat. Showing Jillian and Bob tell them about commercial products is a bit annoying. It looks so much like a scripted commercial rather than educational information. Report
Welcome Cheryl
Thanks for your blog article. I enjoyed it.
I watch Biggest Loser every week. It is a guilty pleasure.
I really enjoyed this column. Hearing directly from the nutritionist on Biggest Loser is interesting, and there are good tips for everyone here. Not being a watcher of the show doesn't prevent me from enjoying the information here - it was far more useful than speculation, getting to hear right from the source. Thanks very much, SparkPeople, and please keep up this sort of column! And thanks also to Cheryl for coming to SparkPeople to let us get the inside info first hand. Report
I agree with everyone here about having more nutrition, behind the scenes reality would be nice, and less time for weigh-in. I do watch and like the BL, it got me off the couch finally. I have lost 11 lbs this week (my first week). My plan is to up my excercise if I stall. Time will tell. Oh and Sparkpeople really helps me alot. thanks SP. Report
This is a great article! I agree with one comment I read about finding time for weight loss. It seems that after work it is hard to find time for it all! Contestants on BL seem to do a lot of working out. I really feel like nutrition is probably the biggest problem with most Americans including myself! Report
I too love the Biggest Loser and would love to see a season where the show would work with people living at home. It would be very interesting to see thow a person would use all the tools provided by the Biggest Loser ( trainers, nutrition tips, food plans etc..) in their home settings. Report
One thing that she didn't mention is that each contestant has a high calorie day. A day where they may take in as much as 4000 calories. In all of the years of the show this has been sort of kept secret. I only found out about it after spending some time this past fall with one of the winners. It was also mentioned in passing this last week when there was the "cookie challenge." I love the show and it's done great things to bring obesity into the light it deserves, but the show also gives false hope much like any fad diet. People sitting at home trying to recreate the losses that they see week-in and week-out. They don't have the everyday worries of work, school, kids or spouse. Their sole 'job' is to exercise and eat right. I would much rather see a show about 'real' people doing this the 'hard way' at home. I've earned every pound that I've lost. It may not have disappeared over night, but I've learned so much along the way.

Spark is the greatest tool that there is out there. I will continue to spread the word to everyone I come in contact with. Report
I like BL and enjoy picking up a lot of tips about weight management, which is an important subject for me. I don't agree with the extreme weight loss produced on BL but it seems healthy when monitored. I bought the Jumpstart book and think it's a really nice and complete weight loss program for anyone who wants to know exactly what to eat and what exercises to do to produce a reasonable weight loss and get on track and the 1500 calorie target is appropriate for all levels. The exercise program is easy to implement for a beginner and can be modified upwards for fitter individuals. It really is a good book, even if folks aren't BL fans. Report
Great recipes and advice. Yes buying more fresh fruits and vegetables is more expensive; however, it evens out due to eating less of other items I used to. Eating right and excercise is the key. Plus great friends and motivation. Thank you for this blog and thank you for Spark People!!! Report
The Biggest Loser has been my motivational resource! I watched too many seasons without manking a change and NOW - it is working... I keep a Pic of a TOTALLY RIPPED Jillian nearby as motivation and use their DVDs for home workouts. Sure, there are plenty of things I would change about the show - but will watch no matter what!! I have every book and have used many of the recipes to modify my diet and increase my whole grains and protein throughout the day! Report
Perhaps a one-hour special just focusing on the food and nutrition; I think it would definitely be interesting, and show the whole picture of what life on the Ranch is like. Report
its a good show but it would be nice to see more focus on nutrition and the balance of calories in/out. The show leades us to believe that all these people do is work out work out work out....obviously they must have SOME down time. Its great that they are able to commit all this time to the show and lose weight but in the real world....I cant possibly work 8 hours a day and work out 4-6 hours everyday and then get all my "usual" home stuff done and then still have time for my family...oh and get 7-8 hours of sleep too!! Lets have a show that portrays what/how to lose weight in the real world amidst daily life. Report
I just started watching the show this season and enjoy it. But, I also agree about the product placement. That is what commercials are for. It seems to me that in a 2 hour show, there could be at least 15-20 minutes dedicated to recipes, food and nutrition. Instead we get at least this much time seeing Kristen, or Aubrey, or Helen crying and crying! And the weigh ins could also be cut down as another poster suggested. Too much drama and not enough education. But thanks for the article and hope to see you as a regular on spark! Report
The Biggest Loser is my ALL-TIME favorite show! I love pretty much any shows having to do with exercise and weight-loss, but nothing compares to The Biggest Loser! I'm with LASTCHANCE09, no matter what anyone says, The Biggest Loser is the best. To be able be on that show would be a dream come true for me!! Report
Interesting. Report