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Stress from her job as an education technology integrator in Buffalo, New York, left Melanie Kitchen, now 37, grabbing whatever food was fast and easy—usually takeout fried chicken or pizza. During her second pregnancy in 2005, Melanie hit an all-time high on the scale. "I stopped looking after 200 pounds," she says. Post-baby, the 5'5" Melanie was only down to 190 pounds and often had no energy to devote to her newborn daughter and 17-month-old son. "Exercise seemed like just one more thing to add to the to-do list," she says.
In July 2006, Melanie was considering surgery to alleviate the back and neck pain caused by her size 38F bust. The final straw, though, was when someone pulled out a camera on a family trip. "I always tried to stand in the back, but this time I couldn't hide," she recalls. "I decided I wanted a body that I could be proud of."
That month, Melanie started taking hour-long walks three days a week. Instead of takeout, she cooked at home, including breakfast, a meal she used to skip. She fought ice-cream cravings with frozen yogurt. "Once I got rid of the junk, I found that I liked fruits and vegetables," she says. The small changes added up, and she dropped 25 pounds over the next two years. In July 2008, she began working with a personal trainer at her gym, who got her doing cardio and strength training three or four days a week. Melanie was down to 155 pounds when a knee injury sidelined her in December 2009. She got back on track by bumping up her strength training and adding yoga to her routine. In November 2011, she felt fabulous and fit at 131 pounds.
Slimming down kept Melanie off the surgeon's table. Now a 34C, she wears strapless tops with confidence—and never fears a camera. "I no longer have negative thoughts about how I look," she says. "I'm comfortable in my skin."
Repeat yourself. "I ate the same breakfast and lunch most days so I didn't have to come up with new recipes, and I rotated dinner to keep from getting bored."
Do a reality check. "I ask myself, 'Will there ever be another chance to eat this indulgent food again?' I eat it only if the answer is no." Play to lose. "If I can't make it to the gym, I take the kids to the park instead, and we run sprints and play on the jungle gym."
Never skip breakfast—your body goes into starvation mode.
Sarah Russello, 30, had vowed to stay at her college weight after taking a job as a sales rep in Scranton, Pennsylvania. But she hit a snag when she met her future husband, Charles, in October 2008. Her gym workouts fell by the wayside as she spent more time with Charles, a martial-arts master who could easily burn off the calories from their dinners out. Sarah, who matched him bite for bite, wasn't so lucky. "The weight crept up faster than I realized," she says. By March 2010, she carried 40 extra pounds on her 5'7" frame.
That month, a friend tagged Sarah in a Facebook photo. She was sitting at a bar in front of a huge plate of mozzarella sticks, beer in one hand, cigarette in the other, with her extra pounds hanging over her jeans. "I didn't recognize myself," she says. She knew she had to get her body back.
Sarah tackled her three-packs-a-week habit first. "I thought, 'Why bother trying to lose weight if I'll just gain it back when I stop smoking?'" she says. Within a few weeks, she'd swapped the smokes for gum. "Quitting smoking made me feel like if I could do that, I could do anything," she says. Realizing that the monster steaks she used to eat were up to five times the proper serving size, she gradually scaled back to four-or six-ounce portions and sipped water instead of sweet tea with her meals. In June 2010, Sarah returned to the gym, where she alternated between strength-training and cardio days. By September, she was just 10 pounds shy of her goal—to be at her college weight again—but the scale refused to budge. For the next two months, she changed her workouts every two weeks to rev her metabolism, and finally, the scale flashed 140.
The following June, when Sarah married Charles, even the size-8 gown she'd ordered had to be altered for her walk down the aisle. "I thought I was happy before," she says, "but the way I feel now is 10 times better."
Let him see you sweat. "My husband and I go to the gym together, and it's great motivation. I know he's watching me, so I try harder."
Play with pasta. "I mix tofu shirataki noodles—which are made with soybeans instead of wheat and have only 20 calories per serving—with tomatoes, tuna, mushrooms, and peas. Yum!"
Steak your claim. "I love meat and will never give it up, but I eat red meat only once a week."
In high school, Bridget Rauschenberg's closest friends were her cheerleading, track, and soccer teammates, so it took no effort to keep her 5'11" figure trim. But she hung with a less active crowd at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington, and her social circle wasn't the only thing that expanded. "I was more into having fun than exercising," says the 27-year-old Raleigh financial consultant. Living off pizza and mayo-saturated subs, Bridget packed on more than 80 pounds by graduation. She recalls, "I was disgusted with how I looked, but I kept saying I'd lose weight later."
Valentine's Day weekend of 2010, Bridget ran into her ex and struggled to fake a smile. "One reason we split was because I needed to get my life on track," she says. "I realized I hadn't made any progress in the four months we'd been apart." She took a sick day from work that Monday, sulking in bed. "I was depressed, and I'd lost friends because I pushed them away due to my insecurity," she says. "I chose then to take control."
The next day, she hit the gym and grabbed some dumbbells. After six weeks of near-daily 40-minute strength workouts using increasingly heavier weights, Bridget dropped a pants size and added 30- to 45-minute intervals on the elliptical.
She started having breakfast and carrying veggies, trail mix, and string cheese, so she always had healthy snacks on hand, and upgraded from sugary drinks to water. "I stopped craving junk food and didn't like how it made me feel if I ate it," she says. When the scale stuck at 190 in November, she found support and workouts online to bring her to 168 by June 2011. She began running outside, working up from three to six miles, and completed a half-marathon in April 2012—at 158 pounds. "When I saw that number, I did a happy dance," she says. "I've been on a high ever since."
Bridget starts most days with a workout, which gives her pep to last until nighttime—a huge benefit for her renewed social life. "I can keep going and going," she says. As for that ex she ran into in 2010? Next month he'll become her husband.
Network it, baby. "Social media is a great place to talk to others when you're struggling."
Sweeten the deal. "I satisfy a dessert craving by adding vanilla or cinnamon to Greek yogurt."
Be a stair master. "If I couldn't get to the gym, I'd run the stairs of my apartment building."
Fast Food Heaven may not appear on any map, but it's how Zakiee Labib refers to her Ohio hometown of Olmsted Falls. Even before she became pregnant in 2005, the interior designer ate out or hit a drive-through at least four nights a week—pushing 5'6" Zakiee's weight over 200 pounds. A year and a half after delivering a girl, Zakiee was still wearing size-18 clothes. With her busy job and a new baby, "I didn't feel as if I had time to focus on myself," she says.
Until her daughter was 18 months old, Zakiee believed her poor diet, low energy, and stubborn pregnancy pounds were just part of being a new mom. But as her daughter grew, Zakiee could no longer deny the truth. "I finally took a hard look at my health," she says.
After she discovered she was eating twice the recommended servings of most foods, Zakiee replaced fast food with healthy, low-cal recipes, such as whole-wheat pasta loaded with veggies. She also dusted off her barely used elliptical and hopped on for half an hour a day while her daughter napped. As she grew fitter, she added more resistance. In June 2007, Zakiee was down to 187 pounds when she learned she was pregnant again. With her doctor's approval, she kept an eye on her portions, used the elliptical, walked, and did prenatal yoga three or four times a week until her son was born in February 2008. Three weeks later, with her M.D.'s permission, she was working out again. She added running, strength training, and kickboxing to her routine, and the number on the scale fell below 200 by April. Come August 2010, it dropped to 134. "This is the least I've ever weighed as an adult!" she says. "I've completely transformed."
Zakiee replaced her maternity wardrobe with size-4 outfits, including the shorts and form-fitting dresses she used to avoid. And she has become an avid exerciser. "I can run five miles and still have energy to run around with my kids at the park. Being active makes me happy."
Drive with, not through. "I make sure I have a healthy snack, like an apple, in the car."
Go to class. "Group workout classes help push you. It's a silent competition."
Eliminate temptation. "I bring only my plate of food into the dining room. Serving meals family-style leads to eating more just because the food is in front of you."
Annie Allen was a great health-care student—at least on paper. When she entered the nursing program at Clark State Community College in Springfield, Ohio, in September 2007, "I was so focused on school that I didn't care what I ate or if I worked out," says the former high school tennis and basketball player. Fried food and sweets became both a stress reliever and a reward. By the time she graduated in 2009, she was carrying 40 more pounds on her 5'6" figure. "I felt like a hypocrite going into a health career," recalls Annie, now a 26-year-old postsurgical nurse in Tampa Bay, Florida.
Her first year on the job left little time for snacking, so Annie lost 15 pounds, but she struggled. "I'd come home and fall into bed. I had no energy," she says. The last straw came in September 2010, when she pulled on a pair of size-16 jeans—and they wouldn't button. "I didn't want to live my life embarrassed and ashamed anymore," she says.
That month, Annie signed up for a 5-K and began training on her days off, working her way from walks to 20-minute runs. She was down 20 pounds three months later when she completed her first race. "Seeing the finish line boosted my confidence to a whole new level," she says. She overhauled her diet in January 2011, tossing precooked chicken into salads and wraps, and whipping up healthy meals like baked fish on her days off so she could bring leftovers to work for lunch. By February, she'd lost another 10 pounds and made a permanent break from soda and her daily fast-food fix. The next month, Annie discovered a much healthier way to relieve stress than stuffing her face: cardio boxing at a local gym. In April, Annie's scale flashed 145 pounds—less than she weighed in high school. "I had a smile on my face the entire day," she says.
With her newfound energy, Annie's 12-hour shifts are no problem. She still boxes twice a week and runs about 10 races a year. "Running gives me a sense of achievement," she says, "especially knowing I came from a place of not being able to run at all."
You're never too tired to work out. "Exercise gives me more energy."
Freeze! "Frozen vegetables are as nutritious as fresh ones, and in minutes you have half of your meal prepared."
Beat the heat. "During the brutal Florida summers, I run when it's cooler, in the morning or evening."