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From Big to 'Biggest Loser' and Back Again

BOISE, Idaho - Over lunch on a recent weekday afternoon, Mandi Kramer nibbled on a veggie-laden salad at Chicago Connection and talked about her ongoing struggle to keep off the weight she lost while on the popular NBC reality TV show.

After regaining more than half of what she lost, she's rededicating herself to living a healthy lifestyle.

"Every day is a new day to start with the tools I learned on the show," she said.

She takes part in a Fit Club Bootcamp and is also working out three days a week at the Body Renew gym in Boise. She watches what she eats - choosing less-caloric versions of her favorite foods. For now, it's skim milk, low-fat mozzarella and SmartBalance butter and about 1,200 calories a day. She's also given up alcoholic beverages for a while.

The 32-year-old Boisean and her sister, Aubrey Cheney, 30, of Gooding, Idaho, were on Season 7 of "The Biggest Loser" during 2008-09. The show is a rigorous weight-loss competition in which participants compete to lose the highest percentage of body weight - in hopes of not only changing their lives but winning the grand prize of $250,000.

Kramer, who is 5-foot-8, worked mightily over several months at "The Biggest Loser" ranch and at home to shed 98 pounds by the show's May finale.

She ran Boise's grueling 13.1-mile Race to Robie Creek in April and got down to 171 pounds, about what she weighed in high school when she was a three-sport athlete at Meridian High.

WEIGHT CAME OFF, BUT CAME BACK FASTER

But she didn't get to enjoy her leaner, lighter frame for long. "I gained 20 to 30 pounds in the first month," said Kramer, who thinks about one-third of it was water weight she had wrung out of her body during four months of 10-hour daily workouts.

She admits her exercise fell off from five days a week down to two days, then to none at all some weeks. Things began to spiral.

"The less you work out, the more crappy food you eat," she said.

By Christmas, she had gained another 30 pounds. She said her head never really caught up with the changes in her body.

"We lost weight so fast (at "The Biggest Loser" ranch), I didn't have a chance to catch up with who I was," said Kramer, a self- described emotional eater and "food addict." Kramer separated from her husband, Rusty, soon after she returned home. They had been in marriage counseling before she left for the TV show competition.

"Rusty is a really, really good guy," said Kramer, who talks to him almost every day. "He wants the 'Little House on the Prairie' life. I want something different. I like socializing and being around people."

HER SISTER'S STORY

Aubrey Cheney, Kramer's sister, went to "The Biggest Loser" ranch knowing very little about nutrition and diet.

"I had absolutely no idea how to lose weight - how to count calories, portions of dairy, carbs, proteins, any of that," she said in a phone interview recently from Gooding.

She said she's the complete opposite of her sister, who is very knowledgeable.

"Mandi followed nutrition a lot. I think if you're addicted to food, you're addicted to the information that comes along with it and dieting," Cheney said. "She's obsessed with weight loss." Cheney, a 5-foot-5 mother of four who weighed 249 pounds at the start, got down to 191 pounds for the show's finale. She currently weighs about 196 pounds.

"I'm staying in the 190s - I go up or down 5 pounds," Cheney said. "I don't freak out about it." Cheney said one of the things she learned on "The Biggest Loser" is to eat breakfast.

"Breakfast is now a huge part of my life," she said. "I now understand the concept. I feel like I'm refueling my body after waking up from the night." She said she thinks it boosts her metabolism, making her hungry by lunch - which she also doesn't skip. She tries to eat dinner before 7 each night.

"I don't think about food very often. I think about food when I need to eat it," she said.

Cheney hates going to the gym, so she runs 5 miles three days a week.

Cheney also separated from her husband last year.

"My husband asked if we could get a divorce," she said. "We were working so hard to be happy - we never fought."

REALITY TV NOT MUCH LIKE REALITY AT ALL

Kramer, a cosmetologist, is usually working when "The Biggest Loser" airs on Tuesday nights. But she often watches it on DVR with friends.

She enjoys answering her friends' questions about what goes on behind-the-scenes on the show.

Kramer said participants on the show work out up to 12 hours a day. Their diets are severely restricted - she was down to 700 calories a day during her last week on the show; Aubrey said she was down to 600 calories. Kramer's friends were shocked.

"Aren't they setting you up for failure?" one asked, prefacing her question with a comment about how no one in the real world works out that much while eating that little.

Some might question the show's techniques or motives - Kramer said the producers definitely played up personal conflicts on camera - but the Idaho sisters said they would both do the show again. Both felt it gave them some time to set life priorities.

"It opened my eyes to a lot of things in my life that I was too lazy to do anything about," Cheney said. "I didn't want to deal with anything. I had no extra energy to do anything." "I was derailed, and I'm back on track," she said.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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