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Looking at old photos with her two young sons, LaWanda Baldwin stopped on a picture of a large woman. "Who's that?" one son asked. "That was me," said Baldwin, who once weighed double (330 lbs.) what she does today (165). How does a person lose half her size? "There's no mystery," says diet doctor Dean Ornish. "Burn more calories or eat fewer." Baldwin and eight others took that formula to heart, each making it her own. "Many programs work," says Lise Lynch, who dropped 125 lbs., "if you work at them." So they gave up fatty foods and made exercise a habit. The rewards were greater than new, smaller clothing. One woman, 122 lbs. lighter, is eyeing a new career. And after dropping 75 lbs., a former couch potato became a weekend wilderness guide. The message for 2005? Reshape your body, reshape your life.

Karen & Kristin Mendorf

On a vacation in Tennessee three years ago, Karen and Kristin Mendorf had an urge to go on a hike their parents had taken them on as children. They couldn't do it. At 300-plus lbs. each, they had to stop "at every rock and every bench—there were older people with canes passing us!" says Kristin, 36, an occupational therapy assistant. "We both said, 'This is crazy!'"

The sisters, who share a house in Raleigh, N.C., joined Weight Watchers the next month and began taking 5 a.m. walks before work. "Getting up that early was unfathomable at the time," says Karen, 39, a paralegal, whose sister often had to pull her from under the covers. Trading their hamburgers and fries for grilled chicken and vegetables was also an adjustment. But it paid off. Kristin lost 182 lbs. and reached her goal weight in just over two years. Karen lost 151 lbs. in the same period (she still wants to lose seven more to get to her goal weight of 150). "They can run for one or two hours nonstop now," says Wade Harris, a trainer they hired at their gym. "I'm still in awe." In fact, their success inspired their mother, Barbara, 63, to lose 75 lbs. of her own. "I see my daughters doing things they never would have done before," she says.

These days Karen and Kristin enjoy their newfound fitness by running 5K races, kayaking, snorkeling and salsa dancing. The one activity they still want to master? Dating. "Both of us are trying to change our self-image," says Karen. "I don't want to be this person in a tiny ball. I want to expand and grow and be someone who's comfortable with who she is."

THEN
Kristin
339 lbs.
Karen
308 lbs.

NOW!
KRISTIN
157 lbs
From size 26 to 8
Turning Point: Getting winded on a hike

NOW!
KAREN
157 lbs.
From size 30 to 8
Inspiration: Her sister. "Having someone there is great"

Megan Moore

Overweight since childhood, Megan Moore, 27, avoided scales her entire life—until a roommate got one at Christmas, 2001. When the needle stopped at 240 lbs., she cringed. But three yuletides later, the scale has tipped in her favor: After losing 105 lbs., the Lexington, Ky., therapist married her longtime crush, carpenter Jonathan Moore, in March 2004.

Moore, a vegetarian, got into shape using a diet of her own creation. First she studied health magazines from the library. "I incorporated hundreds of plans into what worked for me," she says, replacing buttery pasta and Brie with protein bars, brown rice and steamed vegetables. She also spent an hour on a treadmill at the YMCA six times a week. After she got married, cooking heavier meals and skipping the gym to be with her husband did allow 11 lbs. to creep back. But she banished them with the help of Weight Watchers. "Losing weight has freed her," says Jonathan. The best part of being fit, says Megan, who now hikes, bikes and swims, "is feeling good about myself and doing things I thought I'd never be able to do."

THEN
240 lbs.

NOW!
135 lbs.
From size 22 to 6
Moment of truth: "If I don't do something, I'm going to weigh 400 lbs. quick"

Lise Lynch

When her 11-year marriage went bad, Lise Lynch buried her pain in brownies. "Half a pan, no problem," says Lynch, 38. Separated in February 2003, the Folsom, Calif., insurance manager took notice of her size only when she saw her April '03 vacation pictures: "I couldn't believe how big I was." Lynch tried several diets but settled on NutriSystem because she found its packaged food—three meals and two snacks a day are included in the $247 monthly fee—the tastiest. At dinnertime, she would heat up a vacuum-packed meal like chicken and vegetables for herself and cook something else for her boys Johnny, 8, and Jake, 6. She also started working out, first at a women's gym, then at home with a Pilates DVD. Another key to her success (which the company rewarded with a $10,000 prize and showed off in an infomercial) was meeting an online "buddy" who was on the plan too: "She also had kids and had about the same amount of weight to lose."

But Lynch's biggest supporters are right at home: "My sons say, 'Mommy, you're a thin, pretty person now.' They were thrilled when they could finally put their arms around me." Even her ex, John, says, "She looks marvelous."

THEN
280 lbs.

NOW!
155 lbs.
From size 26 to 8
Reality Check: Scary photographs from vacation

Dacia Gilkey

For Dacia Gilkey her rock bottom came in 1999 as she dressed for a Valentine's Day date. At 256 lbs., she couldn't get a pair of pantyhose up over her thighs. "I just sat on the bed in tears," says Gilkey, 27, a clerk at the Georgia Bureau of Investigations.

That week the Atlanta native cut out vending machine visits, soda and fried foods. Adding two-hour workouts on the Stairmaster and elliptical machines five days a week helped her lose 100 lbs. in five years. When she plateaued, she joined Weight Watchers, further cut her sugar intake and started jogging. Now a toned 134 lbs., Gilkey is addicted to long runs. "I call her Forrest Gump 'cause she can't stop running," says mom Pamela. At her ideal weight, Gilkey has set another goal—becoming an FBI agent. "Now that I'm in good physical condition, I can apply and take the fitness test," she says. "People can want it for you, but you really have to want it for yourself."

THEN
256 lbs.

NOW!
134 lbs.
From size 22 to 8
Discovery: "When you watch your weight, you learn your body. I have to watch sugar. For some people, it's something else"

Jessenia Herrera

Raised on dishes like stewed chicken made by her El Salvadoran mother, Jessenia Herrera wasn't an overweight child. But in high school she discovered junk food and by the time she graduated, she was 175 lbs. Four years later Herrera, a stay-at-home mom, had reached 250. "I'd eat a large pizza and sleep with the box in my bed," she says. Finally, at 24, she was fed up. "I looked at my son and thought life is too short," says the Burke, Va., administrative assistant. After losing 29 lbs. on a string of different diets, she lost 100 more in just over a year with Jenny Craig, eating 1,700 calories per day with packaged meals and walking three miles daily. "Now I have all this energy," says the single mom, 29, who keeps fit at the gym and by playing basketball with Vincent, 9. Still eating light, Herrera keeps an old photo of herself in her wallet for inspiration. "There's no going back for me. Not ever," she says. "I will never be heavy again."

THEN
250 lbs.

NOW!
121 lbs.
From size 28 to 4
Motivation: "I want to be there for my son and be able to play with him"

THE FINISHING TOUCH
Losing 120 lbs. left Roberta Tabb in better shape but not with the shape she wanted. A body lift completed her transformation

Roberta Tabb thought she would be thrilled. By jogging daily and switching from fast foods to salads and fruit, she went from 275 to 155 lbs. in a year and a half. But the Pittsburgh Web designer was disappointed: Her weight loss had left her with folds of excess skin that sagged from her body. "I sure didn't have the breasts of a 21-year-old," says Tabb, now 23. So in December 2003, she had a body lift. The American Society for Aesthetic Plastic Surgery reports that from 2002 to 2003, the number of lower body lifts performed in the U.S. more than doubled, and total body lifts, which can include the torso and arms, are now becoming popular as well. "Skin has no muscle, so it won't contract or tighten," says Dr. Al Aly, a plastic surgeon in Iowa City. "Some patients who lose a lot of weight can take on the shape of the Michelin Man." Lower body lifts cost an average of $7,900 and full body lifts can run as high as $50,000, which insurers usually don't cover. Doctors caution that the procedure, which can lead to significant blood loss, is risky. But for Tabb, it was worth it. "I can wear low-rider jeans!" she says. "I never thought I could have as much confidence in myself as I do now."

THEN
275 lbs.

NOW!
Breast Lift & Reshaping
Tummy Tuck
Inner & Outer Thigh Lifts
Rolls of skin removed from back
Butt Lift

Stephanie Ross

Double cheeseburgers for lunch, buffalo chicken-wing dinners and long hours behind a desk helped Stephanie Ross pack 203 lbs. on to a 5'3" frame. But a 1999 breakup with her longtime boyfriend helped inspire the Lexington, Ky., attorney to slim down. "I was tired of the way I looked," says Ross, 34. "I thought, 'If I don't arrest this now, then when?'"

Junk food gave way to carrot sticks. At breakfast Ross drank Slim-Fast shakes; for lunch she ate Healthy Choice entrees. Eventually she started running, spinning or weight training six days a week. "I went from this complete couch potato to someone you won't find at home on the weekend," she says. Now 128 lbs., Ross competes in adventure races, leads weekend wilderness tours and soon hopes to be a guide full-time. Oh, and guys should take note: Her idea of romance is a date in the great outdoors. "Dinner and a movie is nice," she says. "But I'd much rather you take me out mountain biking."

THEN
203 lbs.

NOW!
128 lbs.
From size 18 to 6
Rule: No junk food in the house. "I have very little willpower if it's there"

LaWanda Baldwin

Though heavy most of her life, Baldwin, the CFO of a Milwaukee bank, says, "I never felt fat. I didn't think being overweight held me back." But in 2001 she was diagnosed with high blood pressure. "That was a wake-up call," she says. So she signed up with Jenny Craig. The packaged food cost her about $85 a week—and she still had to buy groceries for her husband, Alvin, and their two sons. But it was money well spent: She lost 23 lbs. in the first six weeks. Baldwin, 40, also hit the tread-mill, the elliptical trainer and the weight room at the YMCA Today she has maintained a 165-lb. loss for two years and no longer needs blood pressure medication.

THEN
330 lbs.

NOW!
165 lbs.
From size 28 to 8
Secret Weapon: "With prayer, there's no stopping me"

Allison Adato, Ericka Souter and Jennifer Wulff. Reported by Deborah Geering in Atlanta, Amy Green in Nashville. John Slania in Milwaukee, Rose Ellen O'Connor in Burke and Washington, D.C., Constance E. Richards in Asheville, Alison Singh Gee, Maureen Harrington, Pamela Warrick, Nicholas White, Sean Daly in Los Angeles, Debbie Seaman in New York City

  • Contributors:
  • Deborah Geering,
  • Amy Green,
  • John Slania,
  • Rose Ellen O'Connor,
  • Constance E. Richards,
  • Alison Singh Gee,
  • Maureen Harrington,
  • Pamela Warrick,
  • Nicholas White,
  • Sean Daly,
  • Debbie Seaman.