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Weighing His Options

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The size 56 blue jeans measure almost 5 ft. around. When Ruben Studdard slips into them for a photo shoot, he doesn’t notice that they’re a tad looser than usual—say, 17 lbs. worth of roomier. In fact, in the past three weeks the 6’4″ velvet-throated tenor has dropped from 455 lbs. to 438 lbs. But Studdard is characteristically indifferent about his lighter self. “Have I lost weight?” he says. “I mean, man, I’m not into the numbers. That doesn’t mean anything to me.”

But it does to his family and fans, as well as to Extra, which is sponsoring the weight-loss program he signed on to last month. “Performers, you know, aren’t the healthiest eaters,” says Studdard, 26, who has put on more than 100 lbs. since winning American Idol in May 2003. “I’m eatin’ on the road, late at night, whatever. It’s more convenient to eat unhealthy.”

Step one involved relocating the R&B star from his native Birmingham, Ala., to a two-bedroom luxury apartment near Hollywood for an eight-week program, which includes workouts with trainer Gunnar Peterson and life-coaching by Idol judge Randy Jackson. On Oct. 18, to much fanfare, Studdard showed up to begin the low-carb, 1,200-calories-a-day Lindora diet, only to prove a no-show at any of his five-times-a-week check-ins. “I travel a lot,” says Studdard, who is promoting a new gospel album, I Need an Angel, out Nov. 23. “I didn’t have time to go in daily like that.” So in early November, Ruben’s team switched him to the low-carb, high-protein Sunfare diet, an L.A.-based plan that delivers three meals and three snacks totaling 2,000 calories a day.

So far, Studdard seems comfortable with the Sunfare program, which offers him an eight-page menu of meal and snack options. “Everything is food you like to eat,” says Studdard. “If you really like lasagna, they will make that for you, but it will be more healthy.” “Only 1,200 calories? That’s not livable for someone like Ruben,” says Sunfare co-founder Carl Ferro. “Ruben is on about 2,000 calories because you have to feed the body what it needs. We’re showing him how to use the hand method to determine portions. He’s got a good-sized hand, so that’s the size of portion he needs and he should have.”

Studdard acknowledges that being African American increases the risk of heart disease and diabetes. But, he says, “I can’t say [the weight] is making a difference for my health. I’m just fine.” Working out Studdard’s feelings about his weight and dieting falls in the domain of life coach Jackson, who has breakfast with Studdard several times a week (one recent meal: chicken and apple sausage, broccoli and watermelon). “What we talk about is how is the tour going, how’s the road, the music,” says Jackson. “Emotion plays a big part, the hugest part, in overeating.” Jackson, who underwent gastric bypass, says such surgery is not part of their discussion. “That isn’t something Ruben is thinking about or wants.” Rather, says Jackson, “he has to understand, and he’s getting there, that never will there be a time in his life when he can go without the diet.”

Three days a week, Studdard reports for his 8 a.m. gym workouts. The former college offensive lineman “is happy to work out,” says Peterson, who faxes workout plans to Studdard when he’s on the road. The two-hour workouts typically involve walking on a treadmill for 30 minutes, followed by free weights, stairs, rowing and a little boxing. “Ruben’s workout will never be the same as Pete Sampras’s or Jennifer Lopez‘s,” says Peterson, who trains both celebs. “He has his own regimen, and it’s safe. The challenge is getting Ruben to make this part of his day.”

Fans are pulling for Studdard—and can draw inspiration from songs like “Don’t You Give Up,” which he wrote for his new album. “The message I’m trying to convey with this album is everyone needs help. We all need an angel to help us,” he says. “Yeah, me too. Of course, everybody.” Despite his dieting ups and downs, “Ruben does have that opportunity to inspire people,” says Lindora CEO Cynthia Graff. “But also to take care of himself. I hope that he continues to seek answers. Well, we’re always here for Ruben.” She adds as a caution, “No plan works for you. The person has to work the plan.”

Studdard, though, isn’t going to work his plan over the coming holidays. “I’m never gonna tell you I’m not gonna eat soul food, ’cause I am,” he says. “I’m gonna be in the kitchen, cookin’ with my mother like we always do.” Turkey, pies, gravy, definitely but, he says—counting his carbs—”not so much mashed potatoes.” And if that means a dieting setback? “I gain weight, I lose weight,” he says with a shrug. “Weight has never been an emotional roller coaster for me. I like to eat.”

Jill Smolowe. Pamela Warrick in Los Angeles