Nia Vardalos How I Took It Off

updated 06/08/2009 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 06/08/2009 AT 01:00 AM EDT

NOW
40 LBS. LIGHTER!

Even as she was breaking through as an actress with 2002's My Big Fat Greek Wedding, Nia Vardalos was struggling to become a mom. For 10 years she and her husband, actor Ian Gomez (of Lifetime's Rita Rocks), had failed to conceive, until finally in 2004, the couple just "gave in," says Vardalos, who retreated from the spotlight and focused on writing scripts. "I creatively poured out my angst. But of course my process was write a page, eat a snack. And I didn't notice I had gained weight because I write in stretchy sweatpants."

Three years later, when she developed high blood sugar and dizzy spells, Vardalos received doctor's orders to lose weight. Eschewing a trainer and nutritionist ("I'm from Winnipeg [Canada], and we just don't do that," she says), Vardalos designed her own diet program, which included keeping a food log. "That's when I started to notice all the cheese, cheese, cheese. Seriously: I would make out with a piece of Brie if I could!" she says. "So I broke up with cheese, and that really worked for me." She also lowered her caloric intake ("I kind of halved everything") and now eats three meals a day—staples include skinless chicken breasts and halibut—and four snacks, such as a slice of turkey with cantaloupe, in addition to taking daily walks of at least 30 minutes.

Today the actress, 36, is not only 40 lbs. lighter but also the proud mother of a 4-year-old daughter, whom she adopted last year. "I've always loved my body—it was never about that Hollywood pressure to lose weight," says Vardalos, whose next film, My Life in Ruins, hits theaters June 5. "I just wanted to feel better."

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