Watching contestants on NBCs The Biggest Loser slim down can be motivating to anyone who wants to lose weight and get healthier. Although The Biggest Loser contestants enjoy the advantage of constant professional supervision, people at home can also succeed at weight loss by following the same basic diet and fitness principles. Cheryl Forberg, RD, a dietitian with The Biggest Loser, shares the secrets of how she has helped contestants lose weight -- and keep it off -- since the show began in 2004.
What motivates most people to stop making excuses and make the commitment to lose weight?
There are multiple factors that can trigger a person to finally make the necessary changes to lose weight. It could be a trip to the doctor and a diagnosis of type 2 diabetes or heart disease. Parents who cannot participate in family life (because of weight or health issues) are motivated by their desire to be able to join their kids. Other motivators are negative experiences, such as trying to squeeze into an airline or movie theater seat, buying extra large-sized clothing, or no longer being able to wear their wedding ring. The psychological impact of feeling inferior because of size or any of the stigmas associated with overweight people can be powerful motivators to get down to a healthier weight.
What are some of the habits that caused the contestants to become overweight?
No two people are alike, but in general, before coming to The Biggest Loser ranch, contestants skipped meals, ate large portions, drank too many liquid calories, ate too much white stuff (sugar, potatoes, rice, pasta, bread), and did not get enough exercise or eat enough fruits and vegetables. Most people didn’t have a diet plan, ate on the run, standing up, in their cars, or at their desks. Most importantly, they prioritized everything over their own health, and food was more important than the number on the scale.
Can someone at home expect to see results similar to the contestants on the show?
Yes, they can be successful, but not in the same way as the contestants on the show. It is a reality show, but it is not reality for most people to have a trainer, incredible equipment, fabulous food, cooking experts, and the luxury of weight loss as your full-time job.
And don’t expect huge weekly weight loss like on the show. Shoot for 2-3 pounds a week. Larger people may lose more in the beginning, and anyone who has never exercised will see bigger results once they start moving more.
We try to impart education on the show to help people lose weight at home. Seeking professional help from doctors and registered dietitians, along with using our guidelines, can help most people find success.
What are your best weight loss tips to help people at home get results?
If you really want to get the scale moving, one of the biggest first steps is to lose the white stuff, like sugar, white bread, pasta, rice, and potatoes. It sounds simple, but can be a really big change. Most people don’t realize how much sugar and refined flour is in condiments, breads, tortillas, muffins, baked goods, and bagels. Start by replacing white bread, rice, and pasta with whole grains, and instead of cakes, cookies, and candies, eat more fruit.
Keep in mind that the quality of the calories is just as important as the quantity. If you focus more on eating nutrient-rich foods, you don’t have to worry as much about calories.
Start recording what you eat in a food record. Just by writing down what you eat, you take ownership that you ate it -- and that can be a powerful motivator to eat more healthfully.
Find a fitness routine that you can stick with on most days.
What type of diet do the Biggest Loser contestants follow?
Calorie levels are individualized for each person, but in general we rarely go below 1,200 or above 2,400 calories per day. With the exception of skim milk, most of the calories come from food instead of beverages because food is more filling than drinks. The food selection is based on nutrient-rich foods that provide good nutrition, fiber, and meal satisfaction for the least number of calories.
Here is the nutritional breakdown of the diet they follow:
When contestants are hungry or tired, we reevaluate the food budget to make sure they are getting enough food to fuel their activities and that the combination of foods is satisfying. In fact, at times we have trouble getting them to eat all their calories. On the flip side, when the scale gets stuck, we might cut back on the grains.
What is the role of a registered dietitian on the show?
Prospective cast members come out for a week, and during that time I conduct a nutritional assessment and diet history. Once they are selected, I see each one for an individualized consultation about their diet plan and give them instructions on the importance of keeping a food record, which they send to me daily. From their food records, I create a spreadsheet to ensure they are getting enough nutrients and food.
How are meals prepared for cast members?
Our goal is to educate them on healthy cooking techniques and weighing and measuring normal portions, and to provide them a full refrigerator of healthy foods they use to prepare their own meals. We have a library of delicious recipes, and bring in guest chefs to share their healthy cooking techniques. For the most part, because their days are so full, cooking is simple. So a typical meal may be a grilled chicken breast, salad, veggies, and a whole grain.
Part of the process is to help the cast learn how to prepare meals so they can continue to do so when they leave the show, because many of them have never cooked and relied on eating out, and on packaged and convenience foods.
What is your secret to helping cast members keep up their new healthy lifestyles when they leave the show?
Generally, if they are still in the weight loss phase, their diet plan does not change much until they reach their weight goals. They also have my contact information if they have questions or need my help.
Most of the contestants continue working out hard and following the diet plan because they all come back for the finale, and that competitive spirit helps them stay focused on eating healthy and exercising. For continued success, we advise them to change the environment that led them to being overweight and surround themselves with people who are supportive.
How does competition help people lose weight?
Whether it is on our show or with your friends at work, contests establish timeframes to help people stay focused on their goal of improving health and losing weight. That sets up the framework that becomes reinforced when the numbers on the scale go down and they start to see positive changes. It gives people happiness, confidence, and a feeling of satisfaction that working together with like-minded people can help you achieve your personal goals.
What kinds of exercise are recommended for people at home?
First, check with your doctor before you start exercising.
Just moving more is a great way to start, and then push yourself out of your comfort zone to be more physically activity. Walking the dog is a good start but it doesn’t constitute a workout. Set up an evaluation with a fitness trainer to establish a basic routine that works all your muscle groups and includes aerobic activity and strength training. Strive to incorporate a workout into your daily routine on most days.
How do contestants keep the weight off after the spotlight is gone?
Long after the finale and lots of lost weight, contestants stay in touch with each other and continue to share a wonderful support system. The support they receive from their communities, peers, family and friends is critical to their continued success. Several contestants flew to San Francisco to compete in a marathon together. They have Facebook groups, and many go on to be motivational speakers to share their success stories. All of these things help them stay focused on their personal commitment to eating healthy and exercising.
Once they achieve their goal weight, they slowly dial up the calories in increments of 50-100 and dial down exercise intensity to find the sweet spot of maintenance. Many folks continue to keep a food journal. By the end of the show, they are walking calorie counters who understand the role of calories in and calories out as the formula for weight loss.
What motivates most people to keep the weight off?
They are so happy and proud of their accomplishment and never want to go back to those negative feelings associated with being obese. The seductive feeling of happiness and what a healthy body feels like is intoxicating and matters more than food.
Sample 'Biggest Loser' Diet Plan
Here's a sample day on the Biggest Loser 1500-calorie diet plan:
- 1/2 cup fresh diced melon
- Oatmeal (1/2 cup dry old-fashioned oatmeal, cooked with 1 tablespoon ground flax and 1 cup water), sprinkled with cinnamon and 1 tablespoon chopped walnuts).
- 1/2 cup fat-free vanilla yogurt
- Mint tea
- 1 fresh pear, sliced and topped with 1/2 cup fat-free ricotta and drizzled with 1 teaspoon honey
- Mediterranean turkey pita sandwich made with one 4-inch whole-wheat pita bread, 4 1/2 ounces thinly sliced lean turkey breast, 1/2 roasted red bell pepper, 2 pieces Romaine lettuce and 2 teaspoons mustard
- Sparking water with orange slice
- 1 nonfat mozzarella string cheese stick
- 1 medium orange
- 4 ounces grilled lean flank steak with 2 grilled Roma tomatoes
- Large tossed salad (2 cups mixed greens, 1/4 cup sliced cucumbers,
1/4 cup sliced mushrooms) with 2 tablespoons light Caesar dressing
- 3/4 cup whole wheat couscous
- 1 cup nonfat milk
- 3/4 cup nonfat Greek-style yogurt with 1/4 cup low-fat granola and 1/4 cup fresh blueberries