Nutrition, nutrition, nutrition: Fittest Loser contestants learn at grocery store

Now deep into fitness and nutritional changes, all five Fittest Loser contestants are embracing the challenges and facing obstacles head-on. And what they are discovering is that it's one thing to talk a new nutritional game, but quite another to chart a healthy path through the culinary land mines and food choices available.

To help them plan healthy meals for the program and their families, Valli Produce in Glendale Heights hosted a food tour.

Longtime store manager Frank Greco and Push Fitness owner Josh Steckler guided the contestants through all departments, starting with fresh vegetables and fruits.

Steckler told contestants that some of the powerhouse produce items include spinach, kale, broccoli, avocados, beet greens, watercress, and any kind of berries.

"Calories are important, but we also want to think about what makes up those calories. Are they empty calories or nutrient dense?" Steckler said.

The contestants asked questions ranging from the sugar content of various fruits and best cooking techniques for artichokes to serving suggestions for fresh carrots.

They were specifically interested in adding vegetables to protein shakes. Kale and other deep greens are great in protein shakes, Stecker said.

Kale is packed with beta carotene, vitamin K, vitamin C, calcium, fiber, phytonutrients and antioxidants.

Swiss chard is another good green for shakes. Chard is rich in iron, potassium, magnesium and vitamins A, C and K.

Spinch is probably the most popular green. It's rich in calcium, protein, iron, potassium and vitamins A, C, B. It's great for lowering your blood pressure and boosting your energy.

With protein front and center in the contestants' new food plans, Steckler and Greco answered many questions about fresh fish, beef vs. poultry and options available to vegetarians.

Steckler noted the importance of the nutritional quality fresh meats and produce offer.

"As far as quality protein sources, we like to recommend lean, natural meats, such as free-range chickens, grass-fed beef, wild-caught seafood, as well as cage-free eggs. To keep things convenient, it's always good to have a protein powder handy as well - such as whey or egg protein powders. Animals that live a clean healthy life will generally produce a better food source," Steckler said.

Walking alongside the contestants during this food tour gave me an opportunity to understand their individual nutritional challenges two weeks into the Fittest Loser Contest.

Here's an update on their progress so far:

Mel Boldt

Raising a dynamic family including kids in college, Mel quickly realized his busy social life created challenging nutritional situations. But he's keeping with his pledge to leave breads on grocery store shelves and passing on deep-dish pizzas when eating out.

"Saying no to desserts has been painless," Mel said. "But breads remain the food I miss the most."

Boldt says he's also learned to avoid salads that boast oodles of ingredients because they often slip in a lot of sodium and big calories.

"I'm the cook in our family. And with this program, I focus on meal planning that includes nutritious foods," he said. "Helping them eat better helps me stay strong and steady on the plan. And that includes family away in college."

Janet Ford

Working in the health care field, Janet sees how putting in long and varied shifts wreaks havoc on your nutritional goals.

"Now I realize the importance of planning meals ahead, especially on days that go longer than expected," she said. "Eating more frequently during the day means readily accessible food. Much less temptation to run through fast food drive-ins on the way home after a hectic day."

Not wanting to crowd out the work refrigerator, Janet struck upon a perfect solution: "Stocking a daily cooler with fresh produce, protein entrees and shakes will allow me to easily incorporate more meals into my work schedule," she said. "Meal planning is key to continued nutritional success, feeling better and weight loss."

Just as important she added, "I'm feeling confident about working through the program and attending to my patients."

Jiten "J" Patel

Being a vegetarian for more than a decade, Jiten or "J" faces challenging food and nutritional decisions daily.

Combined with a varied work schedule that takes him around the Chicago area, in the past J often chose carbohydrates in place of meat proteins. "They were a convenient meal option for my life on the go," he said. "I knew my body needed a nutritional change and a solid plan for the future.

"Now I rely on egg and plant proteins to jump-start my nutritional needs. I'm learning which carbohydrates to choose and how I can vary my menu," he said.

Sharon Miller

Comfortable in her role as "chief food shopper and cook" at home, Sharon decided her nutritional success hinged on getting the entire family on board with the food program.

Some family members needed a little encouragement.

"Everyone needed to improve their health," Sharon said. "Now I shop and cook per the program's nutritional guidelines, for all family members."

To prevent a culinary mutiny on the home front, Sharon uses creativity with cooking.

"I bake fish in parchment paper," she said. "It keeps meat flavors and juices intact, while my family loves opening their own dinner package."

Kathy Couston

For Kathy, joining the Fittest Loser contest meant following a new path for life she has desired and pondered. Putting in long hours at work resulted in a comfortable fast-food lifestyle, sacrificing fitness and healthy nutrition.

"The big change is eating five or six great-for-you meals every day," she said. "I really enjoy this new food program and the timing is perfect for me."

For her, success means finding the right balance of fats, proteins and carbohydrates.

"I'm trying new foods, reading nutritional labels and sticking with the recommended fats," she said.

Ditching carbohydrates and sugar came easier than expected.

"Surprisingly, I feel full on the nutritious foods, not hungry at all," she said. "Working through the fittest loser program, I'm excited to bring on healthy fitness and eating habits."

Protein shake gets a sweetness and nutritional makeover

  Mel Boldt and the other Fittest Loser contestants learn how to shop for healthier food with their Push Fitness trainer Josh Steckler at Valli Produce in Glendale Heights. Daniel White/
  Jiten Patell and the Fittest Loser contestants, learn how to shop for healthier food with their Push Fitness trainer Josh Steckler at Valli Produce in Glendale Heights. Daniel White/
  Longtime Valli Produce manager Frank Greco and Push Fitness owner Josh Steckler guided the Fittest Loser contestants through all the grocery store's departments, starting with fresh vegetables and fruits. Daniel White/
  Frank Greco of Valli Produce in Glendale Heights teaches Fittest Loser contestants how to shop for healthier food. Daniel White/
  Annie Overboe gets tips on shopping for healthier food at Valli Produce in Glendale Heights. Daniel White/
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