Elisa earned a bachelor of arts in psychology from the University of Pennsylvania and a master of science in clinical nutrition from New York University. She was a national media spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association for 6 years, and was a recipient of The New York State Dietetic Association Media Excellence Award in 2007. Elisa is also certified as a personal trainer by the American Council on Exercise.
Elisa has written articles for several publications including Parents, Woman’s Day, and Weight Watchers, and was a contributing editor for both Redbook and Seventeen. Elisa is also the author of Nutrition At Your Fingertips, which was honored with a 2010 National Health Information Award (Merit), and the co-author, Feed Your Family Right! How to Make Smart Food and Fitness Choices for a Healthy Lifestyle and So What Can I Eat?! How to Make Sense of the New Dietary Guidelines for Americans and Make Them Your Own.
This past June, Elisa was a speaker at the Food For Your Whole Life conference, headlined by Dr. Mehmet Oz, Dr. David Roizen, Dr. David Katz, and several distinguished health and nutrition experts. Elisa’s talk for professionals covered the unique nutritional and health issues of teenagers.
Diet Detective: Is there anything about yourself that you’ve changed your mind about in the last 20 years?
Elisa: During childhood, my weight always fluctuated; as a teenager, I struggled with my weight and always wanted to be thinner. While I was physically active — I loved to play tennis and ice skate — I overate, often for emotional reasons. Since that time, I have learned to moderate my eating habits — I have lost about 30 pounds since my high weight in high school, and have successfully kept it off for the last decade (and even gave birth to two sons along the way). I have learned that I can eat what I like, but in moderate portions — that helps me not feel deprived. I also choose my foods and beverages carefully, and try not to waste calories on things that I don’t enjoy that much (I do love chocolate though, and eat small amounts often). I have also learned that it’s critical to move my body every day, and fit in fitness whenever possible not only to look better, but to maintain a high energy level, lift my spirits, preserve muscle and bone mass (which tend to decline as we age), and to maintain a healthy body weight. I have also learned to speak to myself positively; positive self talk leads to more productive behavior than negative self-talk. Most importantly, I have learned that it’s important to strive not to look like someone else, but to make the most of what I have. My body is far from perfect, but I have learned to accept my body for what it is. While I will never have thin thighs, I can say that I am truly comfortable in my own skin. I also know that if I didn’t nourish my body and stay active, I’d look and feel a lot worse!
Diet Detective: What keeps you going (your motivation)?
Elisa: I am highly motivated to inspire others to change their lives in a practical and positive way in order to achieve their health and fitness goals. I love being able to translate the latest scientific research about diet and health into real-world solutions to help individuals and families make healthful, safe, and effective changes in their food, fitness, and lifestyle habits. Because people are bombarded each day with oftentimes conflicting information about nutrition and fitness, I love to serve as a credible resource for those who want to better understand the connection between diet, fitness, and overall health, and put that information into action in their own lives. As a mother, I know how challenging it can be to take care of yourself and at the same time raise healthy eaters. Even though I am a registered dietitian, I experience many of the same things other parents do. For example, my younger son won’t eat fruits or vegetables unless they’re hidden in foods! I love to share my expertise and experiences with other parents, and believe that doing so keeps me on my toes professionally.
Diet Detective: If you could eat one forbidden food whenever you wanted without gaining weight, what would it be?
Elisa: I really don’t think any food should be forbidden, and I seldom deprive myself of foods I enjoy. That being said, if I could indulge in a particular food without suffering the health or weight consequences, I’d have to choose cool ranch or nacho cheese Doritos. French fries would be a close second!
Diet Detective: What dessert do you dream about?
Elisa: Chocolate cream pie. I don’t think I’ve had that for decades. I also love a good jelly donut!
Diet Detective: If there were one healthy food item (something you love) that you had to eat every day, what would it be?
Diet Detective: What do you think is the most important thing that makes or breaks a diet for someone?
Elisa: I call it the “diet mentality.” If someone says he or she is “going on a diet,” that’s a red flag right there; that means he or she thinks of a diet as something to go on or off, instead of seeing a diet as an overall way of eating each and every day. I believe that when people change the way they think about a diet, and instead of “going on” a diet they instead adopt specific dietary behaviors such as having breakfast, or adding a fruit or vegetable to each meal, they are more likely to maintain these healthful behaviors and reap the benefits over the long-term.
Diet Detective: How did you come to your conclusions about weight loss and dieting?
Elisa: I have learned a lot from my own personal experiences with dieting and maintaining a significant weight loss for a decade. I have also learned a considerable amount working with individuals and families in my private nutrition consulting practice for about 11 years. Since the science is always changing, I make it a point to read all the new research that relates to dieting and weight management and translate the findings into real-world strategies people can try and use to achieve and maintain a more healthful body weight.
Diet Detective: What do you consider the world’s most perfect food?
Elisa: This is a tough one, because there are so many. I’d say tomatoes are pretty close to being a perfect food, since they’re rich in lycopene, a powerful antioxidant; tomatoes are also extremely low in calories and fat, contain fiber, and are also a great source of vitamin A and vitamin C. And they’re versatile and so delicious!
Diet Detective: How important is it to focus on the entire family when trying to maintain healthful eating habits?
Elisa: Because no man is an island, and different family members impact other family members’ eating habits, it’s critical to focus on the family as a unit when assessing food and fitness habits and creating solutions that are realistic to make and sustain long-term. Also, families must work together to support each individual family member who has unique nutrition needs and food preferences. If families work together, they have a much better chance of helping one another achieve and maintain their individual goals.
Diet Detective: What are the two key things all parents must do when teaching their children about good nutrition?
Elisa: Parents definitely need to make an effort to model the healthy food, fitness, and lifestyle behaviors they want to see in their children; if a mother doesn’t eat vegetables, it’s going to be a tough sell when she tries to encourage her children to eat vegetables. Also, and perhaps most importantly, I think it’s critical for parents to speak positively about food and body weight in front of their children. Parents who are overly concerned, critical, or judgmental about their own body weight or that of their children can pass that concern onto their children which can then turn into negative feelings, thoughts, and behaviors; instead, parents can try to focus on what they like about themselves and their kids, and take a look at their individual and family behaviors and habits and find ways to make small, simple changes.
Diet Detective: How do family mealtimes help keep unwanted pounds at bay?
Elisa: Because we live in a 24/7 food environment where high calorie, high fat, and high sodium food is all around us, it makes sense that the more we prepare our own meals and eat at home as a family, the fewer calories we take in. Studies have shown that families who eat together more often also tend to consume more nutrients. Scheduling several weekly meals (that can include breakfast and dinner for most families) can not only help families feel more connected to one another, but it can improve the quality of their diets and prevent the excess consumption that would occur if instead if they grabbed take out or went out to eat.
Diet Detective: How can your kitchen be guilty of helping you put on pounds? How can you reverse this?
Elisa: If you keep cookies on your counter, and sugary, fatty snacks in your pantry, these visual cues can certainly lead you to eat more. Instead, keep these indulgences out of reach and keep fresh fruit in a bowl on your counter, keep cut up fruit or sliced vegetables in your refrigerator, and stock up on high quality protein sources including low sodium canned beans, canned fish, and unsalted nuts. Also, include whole grains such as whole-wheat pasta and high fiber cereals. Stick to low-fat milk, water, and 100% fruit juice instead of soda and other sugary beverages. If you keep on-hand a lot of healthy foods and beverages that fit into the basic key food groups, you’ll put yourself in a much better position to eat more healthfully and manage your weight.
Diet Detective: What are some easy (and delicious) ways to incorporate more fruits and vegetables into your family’s meals? And why should you add more fruits and vegetables? How is that going to help?
Elisa: The best way I incorporate more fruits and vegetables into my family’s meals is to buy a lot of different ones — I buy frozen and canned vegetables (with no sodium added), canned fruit packed in its own juices with no added sugar, and a lot of fresh fruits and vegetables. At meals, I try to incorporate fruits and vegetables into dishes I routinely make. For example, I add shredded carrots to chicken meatballs, and salsa to fajitas; I also sneak applesauce or bananas into my younger son’s pancakes. For snacks and desserts in-between or after meals, I offer my kids a choice of fresh fruit (i.e., bananas, grapes, or cut-up green apples) alongside more traditional snack foods such as crackers or cookies. Loading up on fruits and vegetables, which are generally low in calories and very high in water content, is a great way to incorporate more fiber and nutrients such as vitamin A, vitamin C, folate, potassium and others into the daily diet. Because fruits and vegetables take a long time to eat, consuming more of them can be a great way to boost nutrients and fill you up so that you won’t overdo the easy to consume foods like cookies, candy, and chips. I always encourage my children to have some fresh fruits and vegetables at snack time, and I always put some vegetables on their plates at dinner — fortunately, my older son gobbles them up, but my younger son is less willing to try them. I will never force them to eat their vegetables, but I do provide them at meals and sometimes the repeated exposure does eventually lead my younger son to taste them (he recently ate some broccoli!).
Diet Detective: What is your advice for parents dealing with picky eaters and sneaky snackers?
Elisa: It’s key to respect your children’s food preferences, and provide a lot of healthy foods; ultimately, it’s up to the kids whether or not they eat what you give them. My younger son is very picky but will eat a lot of healthy foods. Parents need to keep in mind that kids don’t need huge portions of foods to meet their needs — even that little bit of grated cheese added to pasta, the tomato sauce on their pizza, and the applesauce in their pancakes can help them meet their needs for certain nutrients. I do not pressure them but I do try to eat in front of my son and comment once (not ten times) on how great the food tastes and hope that he’ll follow suit at some point.
As for sneaky snackers, a good rule for families is to eat only in the kitchen. Make sure you and your kids sit at the table in the kitchen or in your dining room instead of eating on the sofa or in front of the computer. Also, don’t over-police your child’s eating. Allow him or her choices at meals and snacks, and don’t overly control their portions — give them smaller portions on smaller plates if they tend to overeat or larger portions if they tend to under eat. If they need more or less, let it be their choice. If you do find they sneak snacks, you can simply say you found a wrapper and you would like them to eat only in the kitchen. If you suspect your child may sneak a lot of food, it’s ok to ask them why they’re doing it — are they not eating enough at their meals? Are they stressed or bored? You don’t want to accuse him or her of anything, but it is ok as a parent to ask your child if he or she would like to talk about it.
Diet Detective: What do you see as the key nutritional problem areas for various ages and stages?
Elisa: For children under two, it’s all about teaching and encouraging healthful habits at an early age, and allowing them to guide their own eating. Being overweight is rampant in young children and teens alike; too many calories, too much sugar (especially in the form of liquid calories), and too much TV and computer time and not enough daily physical activity at an appropriate intensity certainly contribute. Teenagers have a lot more autonomy, and spend a lot of time out with friends — they frequent coffee bars and fast food restaurants, which often means more calories than their bodies need. College students have the most autonomy; they’re usually on a tight budget and need to rely on cafeteria or fast food for most meals, which certainly makes it a challenge to eat well. Underage drinking is also prevalent, and often means more calories, not just from beer and mixed drinks but from munchy-type food as well (think pizza, cheese fries, chips and cookies). New parents have a great challenge — they need to nourish themselves but usually spend so much time on nourishing their kids that they spend little time and make little effort taking care of themselves. Older people may have health problems that affect their eating habits and choices, as well as fitness habits, and this can make it a challenge to get the nutrients they need to preserve themselves as they age.
Diet Detective: What physical activity do you do to keep yourself in shape?
Elisa: I mainly do power walking (and a little bit of running) and free weights. I also ice skate. I will resume tap dancing this summer, and may even take a belly dancing class. I love to walk and run outside, and take fun classes (like tap dancing), which challenge not only my body but also my mind (it’s not easy to do a hop-shuffle-leap-shuffle-leap-shuffle-hop!). When the weather is nice, I walk back and forth from my kids’ schools; in the winter, when I’m less active, I cut back my food intake just a little bit to keep my weight in check.
Diet Detective: Do you have a favorite healthy recipe or cooking tip? If so would you share it?
Elisa: I use non-stick cooking spray to prepare lots of meals (including scrambled eggs and omelets, pancakes, and grilled sandwiches). I also cook with a lot of olive oil and rely on paper towels to blot out excess oil from dishes.
Diet Detective: Do you have a Calorie Bargain?
Elisa: I found these great 60-calorie Dove ice cream bars; they’re individually packaged and they come in different flavors (I prefer the vanilla covered in milk chocolate). I have this from time-to-time instead of having ½ cup of ice cream like I used to after dinner. This saves me about 90 calories which over a week, equals about 630 calories!