2020 Fittest Loser contestants shake up their grocery and restaurant habits

  • Barbara Simon shopping with new goals in mind at a Jewel in her neighborhood.

    Barbara Simon shopping with new goals in mind at a Jewel in her neighborhood. Courtesy of Barbara Simon

  • For breakfast, Van Dillenkoffer prepares oatmeal with blueberries, one-half of a banana and coffee.

    For breakfast, Van Dillenkoffer prepares oatmeal with blueberries, one-half of a banana and coffee. Courtesy of Van Dillenkoffer

  • For breakfast, Van Dillenkoffer prepares oatmeal with blueberries, one-half of a banana and coffee.

    For breakfast, Van Dillenkoffer prepares oatmeal with blueberries, one-half of a banana and coffee. Courtesy of Van Dillenkoffer

 
By Colette A. Harris
Daily Herald correspondent
Posted3/1/2020 7:32 AM

If you're trying to lose weight, it can be challenging to make healthy selections when going grocery shopping or eating out. What should you buy? How much should you buy? Should you order a salad or is a piece of lean meat or fish and vegetables the better choice?

Fittest Loser contestants are trying to answer all of those questions now that they're in the second week of the competition. The week's focus was all about understanding eating and shopping habits and learning how to make healthier and more nutritious choices, something anyone can learn when trying to make a lifestyle change.

 

Before you can start making healthy choices at restaurants and the store, it's important to know what's currently on your daily menu. Contestants all received a food journal at the beginning of the competition and are using it to keep track of what, when and how much they're eating for breakfast, lunch, dinner and anything in between.

"Since becoming part of the Fittest Loser, my breakfast has dramatically changed from a breakfast sandwich at McDonald's, to a protein shake," Neil Madden said. "My energy level is very high."
"Since becoming part of the Fittest Loser, my breakfast has dramatically changed from a breakfast sandwich at McDonald's, to a protein shake," Neil Madden said. "My energy level is very high." - Courtesy of Neil Madden

"Keeping a food journal is a great tool for holding yourself accountable, especially if someone else is looking it over and giving feedback," said Joshua Steckler, owner of Push Fitness in Schaumburg. "Writing everything down can show bad habits that you might not even be aware of, such as going too long without eating or eating more than you thought you were."

Once you have an idea of the choices you're making daily, you can start to make changes around what, how much and when you eat. For example, Steckler said craving a lot of sweet foods usually means your blood sugar is off. Making sure you eat every three hours can help regulate your blood sugar and better control that craving.

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"An apple and peanut butter or a Greek yogurt with crushed walnuts are great options to have around if a sugar craving does set in," said Steckler.

If you're craving salt, Steckler recommends snacking on a handful of roasted nuts seasoned with sea salt or Himalayan pink salt. Raw nuts are a great source of healthy fat and roasting and seasoning them yourself allows you to watch your salt intake and still enjoy a flavorful snack. Once roasted, store nuts in individual portions so you can grab them on the go. Nuts can be high in calories, so it's important to stick to the correct serving size when choosing this snack.

Conquering the grocery store

It's much easier to maintain better eating habits if healthy food is in your home and readily available. Stocking a nutritious kitchen starts with a well-planned trip to the grocery store and an idea of what you'll eat for the week. Life can be unpredictable, but try as best you can to decide what you'll make for meals and what snacks you'll need for the next few days. Then, make a shopping list with all the necessary ingredients.

Jennifere Lux prepares a midmorning snack with yogurt and berries in her work break room.
Jennifere Lux prepares a midmorning snack with yogurt and berries in her work break room. - Courtesy of Jennifer Lux
                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

When you're at the store, stick to the list. Avoid buying anything that isn't part of your weekly meal plan. That way, you'll have all the foods you need to make nutritious meals at home and your kitchen will be stocked with only healthy options.

After the second Push Fitness boot camp, Steckler led contestants through a tour of Jewel-Osco in Schaumburg to teach them how to make healthier purchases. Van Dillenkoffer said he and his wife shop for food differently because of what he's learned during the challenge. They have stopped buying foods high in sodium and fat.

"We have been buying a lot more fruits and vegetables and try to purchase meat and fish in four ounce sizes, if possible," said Dillenkoffer. "Now that we had our training with Joshua at Jewel, we'll buy fresh meats and fish instead of the frozen bag."

Prior to the challenge, Barb Simon said she rarely made a list before grocery shopping, resulting in impulse buys like ice cream, chocolate bars and other carb and sugar-laden items. Now, she heads to the store with a list of what she'll need for the next few days and said planning helps her avoid those impulse purchases.

Neil Madden bought a new mini-fridge for his office at work. "Having the ability to store fresh foods at work, where I spend over eight hours per day, is vitally important for nutritious eating," he said.
Neil Madden bought a new mini-fridge for his office at work. "Having the ability to store fresh foods at work, where I spend over eight hours per day, is vitally important for nutritious eating," he said. - Courtesy of Neil Madden

"Before the challenge, I used to buy whatever I thought tasted good, not necessarily paying attention to the nutritional value of the items I was buying and eating," Simon said. "I've eliminated all of that stuff and replaced it with fresh fruits, vegetables and healthy fats, such as olive oil and almond butter."

Before taking the tour, Jennifere Lux said she put a little bit of everything in her cart. She always bought fresh fruits and vegetables, but also added boxed or prepackaged meals and dessert to her cart. Today, she's eliminated prepackaged meals, deli meats, frozen and canned vegetables and bakery items from her diet. She's much more conscious of labels and isn't afraid to spend time comparing them to make sure she's choosing items with the fewest and healthiest ingredients.

"The grocery store tour really opened my eyes. Just because something looks good for you doesn't mean it is," said Lux.

Steckler advised contestants to shop the perimeter of the store, where they will find fresh fruits and vegetables, raw nuts, and lean meats and fish. Make sure your cart is full of a variety of foods to ensure you're getting all the nutrients you need. Load up on fresh fruit and vegetables, including dark leafy greens, healthy fats such as raw nuts, avocados or Greek yogurt, and lean meat and fish. If you do buy grains, stick to whole grains. Try to shop on a full stomach as much as possible. If you head to the store hungry, you're likely to buy more than you need and make less healthy choices.

You won't find "junk" food in Neil Madden's cart anymore. He's taking Steckler's advice and shopping the perimeter of the store to load up on fresh and organic fruits and vegetables, lean meats from the butcher, fresh fish, almond milk, free range eggs and low sodium nuts.

"I am reading every label for calories, fats, carbs, proteins and sodium content," said Madden. "I go with a list and I stick to it. No impulse shopping."

Making healthy choices at restaurants

By following a few simple tips, it's possible to enjoy eating out while maintaining a new, healthier way of eating. It's now easier than ever to review a restaurant's menu ahead of dining out, something Steckler recommended contestants do to see what options are available at their chosen spot.

"Tell the wait staff you're on a special diet and ask the kitchen to prepare foods to your needs," said Steckler. "Stay away from sauces and soups and focus on fresh meats and vegetables."

Dillenkoffer now regularly reviews menus ahead of time to select restaurants that fit his diet plan and meal time frame with great results. He looks for menu items that have less caloric value and will be served as smaller portions.

"We have been out a couple of times and I was able to eat sensibly by getting fish or a 4 ounce steak," said Dillenkoffer. "I also enjoy salads with either grilled chicken or steak along with a low calorie balsamic vinaigrette dressing."

For breakfast, Van Dillenkoffer eats oatmeal with blueberries, one-half of a banana and coffee.
For breakfast, Van Dillenkoffer eats oatmeal with blueberries, one-half of a banana and coffee. - Courtesy of Van Dillenkoffer

Dillenkoffer also refrains from ordering beer or wine with dinner and will substitute fruit or a small portion of cottage cheese in place of hash browns and toast when eating breakfast out. Lux said she hasn't gone out much since the competition began, but when she does she forgoes the bread basket and brings her own dressing so she can control what and how much is topping her salad.

"Salads taste great with fresh fruits or veggies -- avoid the cheese," said Lux.

Although contestants are dining out, they're now more likely to cook at home. Prior to Fittest Loser, Madden said takeout dinners were his downfall and he often ordered impulsively off the menu. He said he won't frequent restaurants much these next few months, but when he does he'll scan the menu, choose healthy options and eat small portions. This already served him well when he was out with his family last weekend. Instead of eating what would normally have been a 2,000 calorie meal, Madden stuck to water and nibbling vegetables off his son's plate.

"If you are deciding what to eat when you are hungry, you will fail," said Madden. "Planning your meals takes discipline, but I feel that it is the only way for healthy eating. I was a sugar addict. That will never happen again."

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