By Alexis Chiu
Updated June 28, 2010 12:00 PM

She’s brave enough to show off her bikini body in this magazine-but she’s no different from most women when it comes to trying on a swimsuit under the harsh fluorescent lights of a dressing room. “I order from the catalog and try them on at home,” admits the actress, 31. Who can blame her? After a series of unflattering photos of the bikini-clad star surfaced in 2007, blogs branded the actress “fat,” leaving Hewitt feeling “embarrassed” about her 5’2″ frame. And now? “I ordered a string bikini for the first time since I was 16,” says the newly trim and toned Hewitt, “and I’m rocking it this year!” The Ghost Whisperer star-who also released her first book, The Day I Shot Cupid, this spring-exuded that same confidence as she danced around in two-pieces at her PEOPLE photo shoot, for which she stuck to a strict all-protein diet and daily two-hour treadmill sessions for a week. “I’m not gonna lie, I’m starving!” she says, eyeing an assistant’s tortilla chip on-set. “Tonight I’m having a chili dog. I’m so excited.” A few days later, over huevos rancheros at one of her favorite L.A. restaurants, Hewitt (who is single after announcing her split from Jamie Kennedy in March) opens up about the secrets to her slim-down-and how she’s learning to embrace her body, cellulite and all.

Your body has been scrutinized a lot in recent years. Has that been tough?

I used to think I was at an advantage, because I was always in Maxim and people would say, “You have a great body.” I could eat whatever I wanted; I was drinking six Cokes a day. It was only around age 28 that I’d eat something and it would show up on my body, like, the next day. Then the photos ran, and I went, “Oh my God, I can’t keep up!”

Ah, the infamous photos [taken during a Hawaiian vacation with ex-fiancé Ross McCall]. How did you deal?

I felt like I had disappointed people. I questioned everything I put in my mouth after those photos. It didn’t make me stop eating and become anorexic, but it challenged my confidence. I wore big, big clothes everywhere I went until finally I was like, “What am I doing?” and I just decided I wanted to be in a healthier place.

How had you been unhealthy?

I was in a relationship; I was a homebody; I was working 15 or 16 hours a day. I got into cooking, so I was making mashed potatoes, risotto and pasta, and not working out because I was exhausted. Over time that takes its toll on your body.

Did you ever try diet pills to lose the weight?

I tried the grapefruit diet pill. It made me feel crazy. And apple cider vinegar pills are supposed to be good if you have belly fat, but I didn’t really notice a difference. I tried both of those for like two weeks; then I just gave up and was like, “This is not going to last!”

What else have you tried?

I’ve run on my treadmill in heels thinking that it would make better leg muscles. It doesn’t. It just hurts your back. And I’ve gotten on the treadmill with a scoop of ice cream. I was like, “At least I’m working out.”

Ever contemplate plastic surgery?

I’ve definitely thought about it. My hips have always been big. I remember thinking at one point, “I know: I’ll get my hips lipo-ed off!” You can’t-it’s bone. It doesn’t work that way. But everybody thinks about it. And anybody who says they don’t is lying.

So how did you finally decide to lose weight the old-fashioned way?

The biggest thing that I had to change-more than what I was eating-was I had to get over the fact I was bummed out people thought I was fat. Then I spent lots of time watching The Biggest Loser and going, “They’re doing it; what’s my problem?”

How did you start exercising?

I went and hired a trainer. The first five workouts, because I had not worked out in probably a year, I got sick. A couple of times I stopped in the middle and burst into tears because I felt like I couldn’t do it. I was torn to shreds physically, mentally and emotionally. Then there was a point three weeks in where I went, “Wow, my clothes feel different!” Now I do the elliptical for about 50 minutes a day and then I do weights for another 20 minutes. I’m also starting to do a little bit of Pilates.

How has your eating changed?

I try not to go over 1,500 calories a day. If I want fries, I’ll eat them-I’ll just do a little longer on the elliptical. The other day I gave myself pizza, and right as I was going to bed I was like, “Why did I do that?” I felt guilty, but then I woke up the next morning, got on the elliptical and I was like, “It’s done!”

Is there any food you simply don’t allow yourself anymore?

Doughnuts. I love them more than anything, but I had to break up with them.

How do you feel about your body at 31 versus at 21?

At 21, there was nothing I could’ve improved on. I wish I would’ve walked around naked all the time back then! A couple of years ago I discovered cellulite-I thought it was an out-of-shape thing. It’s not-it’s genetic. But I’ve always been lucky: Even if I gain weight on my sides or butt or legs, my stomach has stayed pretty flat. It’s getting softer, but it’s still toned. I’m liking my stomach these days.

And you still love your boobs?

Yes! They’re getting a little lower, but they’re good.

Do you have any insecurities?

I wish I had longer, leaner legs. I’d like to have a much higher, tighter butt. There’s this Brazilian butt workout that the Victoria’s Secret models do; I ordered it off TV and I do it at home. I’ve also been doing the Pussycat Dolls workout in my house.

Is this your best body ever?

I’m starting to love it. Not in love yet, but I’m falling in love with my body.

In retrospect, were those unflattering photos a blessing in disguise?

I feel like it did something good for me in the long run. Now I’m a much healthier eater and I love exercising. I enjoy the junk food more because I’m not eating it all the time. I’m trying to feel more confident in general. I’m a work in progress.