Final Say: Lanette Kovachi

 

Lanette Kovachi, 39, is corporate dietician for Subway, which has its world headquarters in Milford and 36,000 restaurants around the world. She also writes a nutritional column at Subway.com. She resides in Trumbull.
 

As a kid, were you a clean plate ranger?
[laughs] There were certain things that I had some trouble getting past, but I did eat pretty well as a kid. I was lucky enough to have a mother who made good food, and really had a focus on healthy and balanced eating. So I have to say that I did a pretty good job.

How did you get interested in nutrition?
I went to UConn and started off as a business major, but toward the end of freshman year the thought of taking business classes for the next three years and having a career in business didn’t seem all that exciting. I was kind of at a crossroads, and then I became friendly with a girl who was in the school of allied health. I got really interested at the prospect of doing something like she was, and when I found out allied health offered a major in dietetics, I was sold.

How did that lead you to Subway?
I started as a dietician in hospitals. I was a clinical dietician so I was doing counseling for people who were in the hospital for various things—hypertension, heart disease, diabetes, obesity—and I was counseling them but it was hard to engage those patients when they were in a hospital room trying to get better so I was looking for another way to use my skills as a dietician where I could really make a difference. After four years doing clinincal, I saw an opening at Subway for a dietician. I never really thought about working for the restaurant industry at that time, but Subway was a restaurant—actually, they were the only restaurant—at the time that was making any kind of effort to try to get people to eat healthier. It was right around the time when the spokesperson Jared [Fogle] started working for Subway and they were advertising their low-fat sandwiches. I was really impressed with the efforts they were making to let people know that there were healthier choices on their menu and to sell those items, so I applied for the job, I got it and I’ve been here for 12 years.
 
What’s involved with being Subway’s corporate dietician?
There’s a lot! [laughs] I oversee and compile all the nutritional data for all the items around the world, so that’s a big job. I also do a lot of regulatory work where I tell Subway what they can say about their food—whether it’s low-fat, if it’s a good source of fiber . . . all those terms we use about our food are things that have to pass FDA guidelines. I’m also on our nutritional leadership team and we make sure we’re always ahead of the restaurant industry with our nutritious options. We are continuously trying to improve our products. 

How do you balance between what’s good for you and what tastes good?
I think the goal at Subway is to make our healthier items taste good, and I think we’ve achieved that. That’s part of what we wanted to change. A lot of people equate “healthy” with “not tasting good,” but it really can taste good. Half of our menu items are our low-fat menu items, and they sell. People like them and they eat them. I think it’s because it’s regular food, your basic food. It’s lean meats, it’s breads, it’s veggies—we have low-fat sauces and it all works together.

What’s one thing that people can do to eat more healthily (other than eat at Subway)?
This may be a typical nutritionist answer but I really believe that eating more fruits and vegetables is the key to being healthier. They’re packed with nutrients like vitamins, minerals and antioxidants—all things proven to maintain health and fight disease. The beauty is that they’re not very high in calories and they fill you up. On the flip side, people are eating a lot of empty-calorie foods—soda, juice drinks, candy—which are loaded with calories that don’t add any nutrition to your diet.

What’s the one worst thing that people ingest?
Soda is up there ... let me think . . .

Let’s try this: Why is soda and those types of drink so unhealthy?
They have absolutely no nutritional value aside from giving you energy or calories. There’s really nothing in them that’s redeeming in any way whatsoever, and they don’t satisfy you. So you can drink a 200-calorie soda, but it doesn’t do anything to satisfy your appetite. Even if you ate 200 calories in food, you would be better off because at least it’d leave you feeling satisfied and not hungry an hour later.

Why do you think people fall into poor eating habits?
Unfortunately, it’s become a really fast-paced world. People are always rushing. They know how to eat but they get into situations where they can’t really eat healthy because they haven’t planned ahead. You get to work, you could’ve brought an apple or a yogurt with you but forgot because you’re rushing, and all you have is either what’s in the vending machine or the doughnuts that someone’s brought in. 

What’s more of a factor in the obesity epidemic: poor food choices or lack of exercise?
There’s so much involved with the obesity epidemic, I don’t think I could weigh one of those more heavily than the other. It’s both. There’s poor food choices and overeating, but there’s a definite lack of activity. Kids have less activity in school, and I think they get less outdoor play, while adults are more sedentary than ever. You can’t really say that it’s one or the other; it’s a combination.

Fads diets come and go but it always seems to come down to the same thing: eat sensibly and exercise.
Yeah, there’s no magic bullet. People are always looking for what’s that one thing that’s going to make them lose weight or stay fit, but it’s really the same old thing we’ve been hearing about—you have to move your body and you have to eat healthy. A lot of people have lost sense of sensible portions, they’re overeating, they think that uncomfortably full is normal—it’s not. People are just not moving as much. I think the times are changing. People are becoming more aware. Even here at Subway, where we sit all day long, people here are beginning to get standing desks. At least we’re beginning to get a little bit more mobile. People are realizing that they’ve got to do something or they’re just going to keep gaining weight or not stay fit.

Why are we obsessed with food?
Well, it’s all around us. How could we not be obsessed with food. Everywhere you go, the grocery stores have millions of choices, you see commercials on TV, every other commercial’s a food commercial—it’s hard to not be obsessed with food and what tastes good and what doesn’t taste good. It’s just the nature of the world we live in now.

Speaking of, how are American tastes different from the rest of the world?
Even American tastes are different across the entire United States but it seems like we go for things that are richer and saltier. It’s just the kind of food that has been developed over the years and that’s the taste we’ve acquired. If different food is out there and available, your tastes will change. I think it’s possible to get people to like healthier foods, there’s just got to be more available.

With over 36,000 restaurants in 100 countries, Subway—and your input and direction—has a large impact on the health of millions. How do you handle that responsibility?
It’s a lot, but organization is key. I feel good about what I do for Subway. Educating people as to what’s in their food and how to make good choices is really something I’m proud. I’m proud that Subway wants to do that. It is a big responsibility, but it’s really one that I welcome and I enjoy.

Do you think you can be doing more sometimes? Earlier, you mentioned that how bad soda is for you, yet you can get a soda in every Subway restaurant. Isn’t that a bit of a contradiction?
Soda is something that our customers want to be able to choose. Talking about good choices, we also have diet soda, which is calorie-free, bottled water and one hundred percent juice and milk, so we do have a variety of beverage choices, but it is all about choice. I’ve talked about soda not being a great choice, but it’s not a choice that can never be made. People have to have a choice. There’s always room for good and bad foods. Would I say have soda every day, twice a day? No. But as long as there are choices and people know what are good choices and how to balance them, that’s key.

What’s your favorite “guilty pleasure”?
I do have a lot. Probably—and it’s a shout-out to my husband—it’s his homemade chocolate chip cookies, which I’m pretty sure he makes with extra butter and extra shortening! [laughs] I don’t want to know what’s in them and he doesn’t tell me—I just eat them. Those are good. I also have a weakness for Ben and Jerry’s Chunky Monkey ice cream. And any salty snack, any chip, that’s also a weakness.

Are you an adventurous eater?
Yeah, I would say that. I’m a foodie. I enjoy good food, I like to try new things, new flavors. Definitely.

When it’s just you alone, what do you eat? What’s your favorite cuisine?
I love Italian food. I guess that’s a little more traditional because that’s how I was raised. I’m a big pasta-and-sauce person, lasagne, eggplant parm—I’ll eat any of those any day of the week!

What are some of the recent diet trends you’ve noticed?
There are several of them going on. I think there’s a push toward more natural ingredients, cleaner labels where people can look at the labels and understand what they’re eating. There’s also definitely a focus on calories and calorie content, and we’re seeing that with all labeling regulations that have been happening across the country where calories are going up on menu boards. It should happen nationwide in the next couple of years, depending on how the government pans out with finishing the guidelines.

A few years ago Gov. Rell vetoed menu-labeling legislation here in Connecticut.
Yes, she vetoed it. But there are still several areas around the country that have enacted it. Many people are now seeing those calories up on the menu board, and I think there’s more of awareness of the calories in the food.

Do you think menu-board labeling is making enough of a difference?
People who are really concerned about calorie intake are going to notice it. Then there’s a large group who are not really going to be sure if “that’s a lot of calories or a little calories.” But like anything, it’s a process, and the more they see it, the more they will start to learn and be able to compare what might be a lower calorie or better choice for them.

It’s going to be a challenge at first—what might be the lowest calorie item in one place might be the highest somewhere else.
Right. And something that’s equal calorie, like a 300-calorie hamburger with cheese might not be as healthy as a 350-calorie sandwich with lean meat and veggies, so it’s also going to be learning about food quality and nutrition quality. Even though people are interested in calories, you have to educated them about what’s in the food, what are the nutrients in the food and that it’s not all about calories.

When you’re not obsessing over calories and food, what do you do?
Wow, nobody ever asks me these kinds of questions. Thanks! I have two girls, 6 and 8, and my husband and I love doing outdoor things with them. We hike, we letterbox, we bike ride, we try to get out as much as we can. I guess you can say that I’m a family person and enjoy everything all kinds of activities with my girls and my husband.

Letterboxing is the best of a lot of activities—it’s part hiking, part problem-solving, part treasure hunt ...
Yeah, it gets them outside. Sometimes if we say “We want to go for a hike,” you get a little push back from them, but then when they get out there and start going on that hunt, they get into it.

Where do you eat outside of Subway?
I wouldn’t say I hit a lot of chain restaurants. I like to go to local good restaurants. I like Biago’s Osteria in Stratford, we go there sometimes. Bin 100 in Milford, that’s a good place . . . unfortunately, we don’t get out to eat too too much. When we go out with the girls, we have to take it down a notch—that’s when we have to visit some pizza places and stuff like that. We like Two Boots in Bridgeport.

So when you do go to Subway—and I assume you do—what’s your favorite item on the menu?
A lot of times I get a salad, actually. We have free lunch here at Subway and it’s set up like a salad bar where you can pick everything you want, so I enjoy that. For a sandwich, I’d have to say my favorite is the roasted chicken with, of course, all the veggies—I have to get in my veggies. I have to practice what I preach! [laughs] And with the honey-mustard sauce. That’s my favorite.
 

Final Say: Lanette Kovachi

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