Getty; Nutrisystem
Ana Calderone
January 15, 2015 08:00 AM

Genie Francis has felt the pressure to be thin since she was a teenager starring on General Hospital.

“I started working when I was 14 years old,” Francis tells PEOPLE. “The first thing they did after I had been there for three or four months is put Laura on a diet,” she says, referring to her character Laura Spencer, one half of soap opera supercouple Luke and Laura. “I totally freaked and it was very hard on me.”

Francis spent the next 30-plus years going from one crash diet to the next. Until now.

The 52-year-old teamed up with Nutrisystem after gaining weight due to menopause and the stress of her two kids leaving the nest. In seven months, she has shed 30 lbs.

“I wanted something different this time,” says Francis, who plans to lose an additional 20 lbs. on the program. “A lot of the diets I’ve been on have been extreme and taught me how to starve myself. But this has taught me how to feed myself.”

Now the actress never feels deprived. A typical day on Nutrisystem could be pancakes and eggs for breakfast, a half cup of yogurt as a snack and pizza with a big salad for lunch. Dinner might be a chicken breast with one cup of broccoli and half a cup of brown rice, followed by an ice cream sandwich for dessert.

But Francis did not slim down due to diet alone; the actress hit the gym five times a week. She still spends an hour, three days a week weight lifting with a personal trainer and two days doing cardio, like the elliptical machine and fast walking.

“The first five weeks I dragged myself to that gym, I didn’t want to do it,” she admits. “But then something flips and you want to go.”

“The weight loss and toning up is almost secondary to me now because I need it just to feel good.”

Make that great. Because with her weight-loss success has come a newfound confidence.

“More important than anything, I feel positive,” she says. “I am able to look at the future with some sort of hope and excitement now. And really there was none of that when I was overweight.”

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