January 08, 2007 12:00 PM

Visit Tricia Cunningham’s Myrtle Beach, S.C., kitchen on a typical weekday and you’ll find her whipping up breakfast for four. But instead of smelling warm maple syrup over waffles, expect to get a whiff of meat loaf, roast chicken or broiled grouper. “I don’t really like the smell of fish in the morning,” her husband, Sean, gently gripes. But he can’t complain about the results. By eating dinner foods for breakfast (and at times ending the day with a bowl of cereal), Cunningham, 34, went from 250 lbs. to 150 during just four months of 1999.

Now a svelte 135 lbs., she tells how she did it in a new book, The Reverse Diet. Before stumbling onto the plan, “I went through every fad diet you could think of,” says Cunningham, a former health care worker, who has weighed as much as 292 lbs. Many days she would gorge on fried chicken, coleslaw and pizza rolls. Then, on August 28, 1999—after attending a wake for a friend—she downed pizza, chain-smoked and drank diet soda until she suffered a panic attack: “My heart was racing. I looked in the mirror and said, ‘You’ve got to change.'”

She quit smoking and fasted for three days (not part of the Reverse Diet). The fourth morning, “I was starving,” she says. “I had chicken, broccoli and potatoes from my kids’ dinner the night before.” She had chicken again at lunch and, at dinner, shredded wheat. “I ate the same meals seven days in a row and lost 12 lbs.,” she says. “I thought, ‘Hey, this is what I want to do.'”

By New Year’s Eve she hit 150 lbs. and debuted her new figure at a party. Stunned, her friends “were asking me how I did it,” says Cunningham, whose only workout was walking. Hoping to parlay her success into a weight-loss counseling business, she began handing out brochures.

She had no formal training in nutritional counseling—indeed, she says, before then she had no idea how to eat healthfully. For years, she says, “There were a lot of naysayers.” Then, in 2005, Sean saw a local TV news show asking for homegrown diets. She got on and soon after landed on a national morning show. Cunningham quit her job, which, she admits, stressed her marriage. She then teamed up with New York nutritionist Heidi Skolnik to write a book. Initially skeptical, Skolnik was won over by the diet’s simplicity. Many failed dieters, she says, try to push through the day on too little food, then overeat at night. The Reverse plan “breaks the cycle,” says Skolnik. “It’s really about caloric distribution. But talk about that and people fall asleep. Say ‘Eat dinner for breakfast,’ and people think, ‘Eat?’ It was really clever.”

What Cunningham liked most was that “I was eating enormous amounts of food,” she says. “I thought, ‘I can’t believe this works.'” Her family noticed too. Sean, 35, who will tolerate chicken for breakfast, has lost 50 lbs. in the past two years. And when daughter Brittni, 14, wanted to lose some weight, “I told my mom, whatever you eat, just give me it.”

Cunningham is hoping for a similar reception from dieters when the book comes out this month. She’s expanding her online community (reversedietsolution.com) and hopes to open weight-loss support centers. “My goal,” she says, “is to change the way people eat.”

THEN 250 lbs.

SIZE 22

NOW! 135 lbs.

SIZE 9

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