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Every week, Heather Sweat stands before packed classrooms and local community groups talking about portion sizes and food pyramids. "I love sharing healthy-eating tips with others," says the nutrition advisor from Wartburg, Tennessee. Not long ago, Heather was a size 16 who stuffed herself with junk food and colas. Now a sleek size 4, the 25-year-old reaches for water instead of soda when she's thirsty. "I'm so much healthier than I was five years ago," she says.
Heather grew up in Vidalia, Georgia, and started gaining weight in junior high. "I ate lots of ice cream, fast food and pizza," she says. By her junior year in high school, she was 5'5" and weighed 175 pounds. That spring, she overheard some male friends talking, and their words motivated her to get control. "A boy I liked a lot said he would've asked me out if I didn't weigh so much -- that really hurt," she recalls.
Determined to slim down, Heather decided to change her unhealthy diet. She cut back on cheese, breads and junk foods and added salads and fruit. By her high school graduation in 1993, she'd lost 25 pounds and was down to a size 10. "It felt good, but I still wasn't completely happy with my body," she says. That summer, Heather added exercise to her routine, walking a mile or two five times a week. By fall, that small amount of activity had helped her drop 10 more pounds.
Heather spent the next four years away at college, where she balanced occasional pizza binges with healthy habits -- using the stairs instead of the elevator to get to her ninth-floor dormitory room, for instance. Her efforts paid off. Heather didn't gain a pound while she was in school -- a considerable accomplishment for most college students. After graduation, Heather continued practicing her healthy lifestyle. She changed her walks to runs and melted off a few more pounds.
By Christmas 1998, almost five years after she overheard her classmate's remark about her weight, Heather had reached 120 pounds. Today, she has confidence to spare. "Being in shape feels great. I know I'm the perfect example of how healthy eating can change your life."
Weight: 120 pounds
Pounds lost: 55
Months at current weight: 29
The Workout: Every day Heather walks or jogs four miles. Three or four days a week she does 100 sit-ups and works out with free weights at home.
The Diet: For breakfast, Heather has cereal with skim milk, a banana and a glass of orange juice. Lunch is a turkey or chicken sandwich on whole wheat and a spinach salad. Dinner is grilled chicken, rice and veggies.
Turning Point: She overheard a classmate saying he would ask her out if she weighed less. "I was hurt and sad, but I was also irritated; that anger really motivated me."
Stick-With-It tip: "When I eat out I always take home half in a doggy bag; the portions are way too big for one person."
Biggest Temptation: Chocolate. "I couldn't go cold turkey -- instead, I cut back gradually. I allow myself a bit of chocolate every week."
What She Couldn't Wait to Wear: A short skirt with funky boots. "When I was heavy, I didn't want my legs to show; I never wore anything short or formfitting."
Originally published in Fitness magazine.