Feeding Healthy Lifestyles
Nutritionist adds the right ingredients at ‘Loser’ resort
by Tom Speicher, writer/video editor. Photos by Speicher
The student embraced her writing assignment. She knew the topic. She knew the steps for crafting a successful paper. She knew how to dedicate the time for its completion, despite several campus commitments.
What didn’t she know? The project would portend her future.
On this spring day, that assignment is a distant memory for Juliette Yeager. She’s typing at her computer in a cramped office accented with yellow walls. Rays of sunshine filtering through the palm trees outside the window provide sufficient natural light for the current task.
Recipe names – California turkey wrap, Korean chicken with kale and kimchi, and niçoise salad with ahi tuna and mango vinaigrette – consume her screen. Yeager confidently manipulates the content as she plans breakfast, lunch, snacks, dinner and dessert for the remainder of the week. Down a flight of stairs are anxious clients who will rely on that menu and her expertise to improve their health and enhance their lives.
Nearly seven years after earning her associate degree in physical fitness specialist – later renamed exercise science – from Pennsylvania College of Technology, Yeager is devoting her career to a cause and facility spawned by that fateful paper’s subject: the television series “The Biggest Loser.”
Yeager is the nutritionist for the Biggest Loser Resort at Amelia Island, Florida, one of four facilities in the nation inspired by the NBC reality show. The 2010 Penn College graduate was one of the first hires when the resort opened about three years ago.
“I enjoy exercising and eating well, so it’s not really like work,” she says prior to leading a class focusing on food labels. “It really helps me to sleep at night knowing that I’m trying to help these people.”
There are many people to help. During a typical week, Yeager sees approximately 20 guests, who have paid a minimum of $2,400 for seven days of fitness training, nutritional education and stress-reduction strategies. Clients with a wide range of needs and body types come from throughout the country and the world for stays that can last several months.
“We’ve had a huge population of guests who are doctors and nurses,” Yeager says. “We’ve had NFL players. We see everyone from the day-to-day person to someone who’s on television shows and in movies.”
Situated on a barrier island about 30 miles north of Jacksonville, the resort is part of a lush, 1,350-acre plantation consisting of golf courses, restaurants, boutiques, a renowned tennis training facility, villas and an upscale hotel. The Biggest Loser staff utilizes office, fitness and instructional space adjacent to the sleepy, tree-lined street that snakes through the plantation. The sun-kissed Atlantic Ocean and a pristine beach are just a short stroll away.
Before enjoying the amenities, guests’ first stop is Yeager’s office, where they step on a high-tech scale that reveals more than pounds. She employs the plethora of data generated, including muscle-to-fat mass and basal metabolic rate, to craft weekly individual meal plans, ranging from 1,500 to 1,900 daily calories.
Yeager is the diet dictator, yet motivational sayings displayed in her office – “Progress, Not Perfection,” and “Baby Steps …” – reveal that she’s a benevolent one.
“I want to give everyone the chance to live a healthy lifestyle,” Yeager says.
She’s embraced such a lifestyle since growing up on a Christmas tree farm outside of Hamburg, a small borough between Harrisburg and Allentown. Yeager refers to herself as “the only toddler who preferred to eat raw onions and vegetables.”
When it was time to ponder potential careers, the multi-sport athlete knew she wanted an active job requiring social interaction. Fun trips to the dentist prompted her to pick dental hygiene as a major. One visit to Williamsport convinced her to enroll at Penn College.
“The campus was so beautiful. Walking up to it, I instantly loved it,” Yeager says. “I was even sick with the flu that day, and I still loved it.”
Within a year, however, her “weak” stomach didn’t love the smells, mucus and occasional drops of blood that confront dental hygienists. A friend enrolled in exercise science informed her of that major. One peek inside the exercise science labs – loaded with cardiovascular equipment, resistance-training gear and free weights – convinced Yeager to rekindle her passion for fitness.
It was obvious to her new instructors that the major was a perfect fit.
“Juliette knew where she was heading right from the very beginning,” recalls Judy Quinti, assistant professor of exercise science. “I found her to be one of my most dedicated students.”
“She just came in and liked the whole atmosphere,” says Paul “Babe” Mayer, professor emeritus of exercise science. “Juliette was very motivated. She was very mature and had a great personality. When you talked with her, you knew that she was headed in the right direction by entering a field in which she was going to interact with people.”
The opportunity as a student to relate abstract health and fitness concepts to the everyday needs and goals of individuals appealed to Yeager.
“We actually dealt with real clients,” she says with a smile. “The major was really hands-on.”
It still is. The exercise science degree requires 215 hours of fieldwork, in addition to semesterlong experiences requiring students to devise and implement fitness programs for faculty and staff clients.
A strong classroom component complements that extensive firsthand experience. The challenging courses range from Human Anatomy and Physiology Survey to Cardiovascular Programming.
Yeager fondly remembers those classes and numerous writing assignments, including the paper on “The Biggest Loser” TV show. She laughs at the irony of that project today while glancing down at her black, short-sleeve shirt brightened with the Biggest Loser Resort logo. Yeager’s report expressed positive and negative feelings about the TV series.
“It gave people motivation, and it allowed individuals to realize that weight loss and changing their lifestyle was an option. The negative was that it’s unhealthy and unrealistic to lose 10 or 20 pounds in a week. Someone motivated by the show might have been discouraged when they only lost three pounds instead of 20 pounds in a week,” she says.
In recent years, “The Biggest Loser” has been criticized for emphasizing rapid, extreme weight loss under conditions that contestants can’t realistically duplicate long-term at home. A National Institutes of Health study published last spring found that 13 of 14 past contestants tracked over six years had regained their weight.
Yeager emphasizes that she wouldn’t be working at the resort if it mirrored the same quick-fix drama of its namesake TV show.
“We are promoting a healthy, sustainable weight-loss program. We teach the science behind weight loss. We teach quality eating habits. We teach meal planning and label reading. We keep in touch with the majority of our guests and find that they are very successful when they go home,” she says.
In fact, Yeager began today at 9 a.m. by answering emails from past guests and providing them with continued support and encouragement. Current clients have been up for at least three hours, enjoying breakfast and various fitness activities. Soon Yeager will be conferring with the resort’s chef regarding the lunch entrée – salmon with herb vinaigrette – before reviewing content for future presentations on portion sizes and healthy habits.
It’s obvious that Yeager relishes contact with the guests. She’s a warm presence at lunch, sampling and soliciting feedback on the salmon. Between sessions, she lends an empathetic ear as clients pepper her with nutritional and fitness questions, even if they were initially wary of seeking such advice.
“They come here and a lot of them are scared, nervous or anxious,” Yeager explains. “They will have sort of a wall up and don’t want to listen to you. It takes a little bit of time to break through that. After they’ve gone through a few really tough workouts, they are usually pretty good because, by then, they’re hungry.”
They’re also hungry to learn from someone who practices what she preaches. With her thin, athletic figure and zest for life, Yeager is a healthy role model. The CrossFit training devotee often shares and demonstrates recipes that nourish her home menu. She relies on that obvious personal dedication to her message to connect with the guests.
That and her education.
“I don’t know if I’d be here right now without my Penn College education,” she says. “They need people here who are well-rounded.”
The encompassing nature of the exercise science major provides students with multiple pathways for success beyond careers as personal trainers, according to Emily B. Miller, instructor of exercise science and department head.
“It was so interesting to learn how food affects your body. It is much more than just getting full or being hungry.”
“There is a great demand for our graduates in metropolitan areas,” she says. “Graduates can become wellness coaches in a clinical setting. They can be fitness facility managers and owners. They can work alongside physical therapists and chiropractors. About 25 percent immediately go on for a bachelor’s degree in a more concentrated field of study, such as sports medicine or exercise physiology.”
Or in Yeager’s case, nutrition. She determined that within the first week of her initial nutrition class as an exercise science student.
“I really like food,” she laughs. “It was just so interesting to learn how food actually affects your body. It is much more than just getting full or being hungry.”
She learned well. Juggling her roles working at the college fitness center, serving as a community assistant, and playing for the women’s soccer team, Yeager was a mainstay on the dean’s list.
“She was a great student. I was impressed that she could really look ahead,” Mayer says. “Some students gravitate to only what’s already in existence. Juliette saw that nutrition would be a wide-open field.”
Yeager earned a bachelor’s degree in nutritional science at Penn State, where her exercise science background put her “three steps ahead” of her classmates. A summer stint working as an instructor at a weight loss camp for kids revealed how her nutrition advice could produce measurable, healthy results.
“I still keep in touch with some of those kids today, so I like to think that I made a difference,” she says. “There are so many avenues you can go down with a nutrition degree. I was thinking sports nutrition before that camp. That got me into the weight loss realm, and that’s what I’ve stuck with.”
A few months after graduating from Penn State, Yeager relocated to the Sunshine State and took a nutritionist job for the Duval County Extension Office at the University of Florida. She traveled throughout the region to low-income schools, teaching students nutrition basics and introducing them to fruits and vegetables.
“We would show just even a picture of a vegetable, and they would have no idea what it was,” she says. “It definitely gave me a different perspective of life from my experience growing up. It definitely brought me down a notch.”
Five months later, she was dispensing advice to a much more affluent community at the Biggest Loser Resort. The company discovered Yeager online via her LinkedIn profile and recruited her for the role of nutritionist at the fledgling operation.
Her smile and bright eyes reveal that she remains thankful for her position. During the next few hours, her enthusiasm and energy endure as she fulfills multiple facets of her job. She seamlessly transitions from demonstrating how coconut oil, Medjool dates, nuts and dried fruit can be combined to make sweet and healthy snack bars, to meeting privately with guests, to planning a grocery-store shopping field trip, to leading a series of interactive classes.
In those sessions, Yeager employs a nonjudgmental tone in discussing the pitfalls of artificial sweeteners and the deceptive information contained on food labels. Alternating between the guests’ workbook and her PowerPoint slides, she describes the benefits of eating small, frequent meals rather than one big one at night.
Guests seem surprised when she tells them that they should consume over half of their daily caloric intake by the end of lunch. Their eyes remain wide while Yeager shows proper portion sizes.
“I really do think a lot of them go home with life-changing information that they use,” she says. “It really just motivates me to continue to do what I do.”
As she prepares to depart for her Jacksonville Beach home at the end of the day, Yeager admits that she doesn’t remember the grade she received on that “Biggest Loser” reaction paper from her Penn College years.
But it’s obvious that she knows her career grades out to an “A.”
with Quinoa Tabouli and Beet Turnip Slaw
- 4 portions organic chicken breast, 6 ounces each
Brown chicken in nonstick pan with 1 teaspoon oil.
Quinoa Tabouli (serving size: ½ cup)
- 3 ounces dry quinoa
- 3 ½ ounces vegetable broth
- 1 tablespoon lemon juice
- ½ clove garlic, minced
- 3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
- ½ small seedless cucumber, diced
- 2 baby heirloom tomatoes, halved
- ¾ cup Italian parsley, chopped
- 1 tablespoon fresh mint, chopped
- 3 tablespoons green onion, chopped
Cook quinoa in vegetable broth until tender. Let cool slightly and add all other ingredients. Mix well. Check seasoning and let stand for one hour or make the day before.
Beet Turnip Slaw
- ¼ cup fresh beets, julienned
- ¼ cup turnips, julienned
- ¼ cup carrots, julienned
- 1 tablespoon orange juice
- 1 tablespoon lemon juice
- 1 tablespoon hazelnut oil
- Pinch sea salt
Peel the beets. Julienne all vegetables using the thin blade on a mandolin. In a mixing bowl, add the vegetables with the oil and fresh juices and season with a pinch of salt. Let stand at least one hour or make the day before.
(serving size: 2 tablespoons/1 fluid ounce)
- 2 ½ cups seedless cucumber, peeled and chopped
- 8 ounces nonfat Greek yogurt
- Zest and juice from one lemon
- 2 tablespoons fresh dill weed
- 1 clove garlic, peeled and minced
- Sea salt to taste
- Ground pepper to taste
Combine all ingredients in a blender.
Serving the Combination, Servings: 4
Place the tabouli on a plate, followed by the sliced chicken.
Top the chicken with the beet slaw and drizzle with 2 tablespoons of Tzatziki sauce.
Nutrient information per serving:
351 calories, 16 g fat, 16 g carbohydrate, 36 g protein, 3 g fiber
(Recipe from Biggest Loser Resort nutritionist Juliette Yeager, ’10)