Ask the Expert: Lean Machine

Q&A with Sarah Berndt, Personal trainer, registered dietitian and owner of HybridFitness and Fit Fresh Cuisine

Q: Why is nutrition such an overwhelming idea to get our arms around? It seems as if it’s a pretty straightforward topic, yet we have more obesity than ever.
A: We have a dichotomy on our hands. People are more overweight than ever and there’s a strong link to what we eat and how we look, our risk of disease and its damaging effects. People aren’t used to putting time toward their nutrition but are more likely to do so with their fitness. They’re not preparing dinner or breakfast—it’s a hassle. When you combine a busy schedule, larger portions and so many others being overweight, we get out of sync with what the behavior should really be. With busy schedules it’s hard to follow through on what [we] should be doing.

Q: What are the most common mistakes you see people make?
A: I find that people make goals that are too abstract. They come in with goals like, ‘I need to lose ten pounds by X day.’ People do better with goals that are concrete and measurable, like, ‘I will burn fivehundred calories today.’ You can’t control hitting a ten-pound loss in two weeks, but you can control how much you exercise.

Q: What are the most updated exercise guidelines right now?
A: The Centers for Disease Control’s 2008 physical activity guidelines have two options: either 150 minutes of moderate exercise (i.e.: fast walking) per week and muscle strengthening activities on two or more days per week. As an alternative, you could do 75 minutes of vigorous, aerobic activity per week, plus the muscle strengthening activities.

Q: What food guidelines should people follow every day?
A: The best foods are seasonal, like produce, and anything that’s not processed, in a variety of colors. It’s always a good rule of thumb to vary your diet in nutrient density—with fresh fruits and veggies, lean protein and dairy, nuts and beans. I think it’s good for people to throw in one vegetarian meal a week, too.

Volumetrics is something I work on with my clients. It essentially says that if someone can learn the energy density of food they can manage their weight much better. So if you went to a party and ate a lot of snacks, you might balance that out the next day with lighter meals. So you can mix and match your dietary intake.

The third thing I teach people is crescendo eating. Most people consider dinner their largest meal. I try to get people to flip-flop that—to eat the majority of calories during the day and smaller meals as the day goes on.

Q: What’s the smart way to read a nutrition label?
A: I think the most important thing people should look for is the fat beakdown. More specifically, that they’re avoiding trans fats completely, and keeping saturated fat intake to 20 grams or less a day for a 2,000–calorie diet. The other thing to watch is sodium. Try to decrease your sodium intake. The guideline is 2,400 grams per day for a 2,000–calorie diet, and 1,500 milligrams or less for someone watching their blood pressure.

Fiber can really help with intestinal health and regularity. It can help with reducing cholesterol—it’s actually pretty significant how much you can decrease your cholesterol with fiber. [It] makes you feel full, helps steady blood sugar levels, helps with weight management and reduces the risk of diabetes and heart disease.

Q: What’s the next “big thing” in nutrition research?
Nutrigenomics—how food and dietary intake affect genetic expression. I suspect that over time diets will be even more defined by people’s genetic predisposition to diseases, and their health. So, nutrient intakes will be specified on genetic testing. [It’s similar to] how we test for breast cancer early on, and women can use that to their advantage.

Q: What diet and exercise books and blogs do you recommend to clients?
The American Dietetics Association is an awesome website ( as well as the Wisconsin Dietetic Association’s website ( I also like nutritionist Joy Bauer’s books and blog (

Shayna Miller is associate editor of Madison Magazine.

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