January 31, 2005 12:00 PM

Standing onstage at an L.A. studio Jan. 11, minutes after 13.7 million viewers watched him step on the scales for the last time and walk off with The Biggest Loser’s $250,000 first prize, Ryan Benson was asked a loaded question: What would he like his celebratory meal to be? Champagne and a chunk of cake? A big steak dinner? A bowl of pasta? “Nah, none of that,” said the 6’1″, 208-lb. champ, grinning and twirling a half-empty water bottle. “I’m still going to take this day to day.”

Except that this day was a little different. So later that night Benson, 36, a DVD producer from Van Nuys, Calif., and his wife, Mariah, popped into an L.A. restaurant for some celebratory ribs, then hit another eatery for buffalo wings and a chicken sandwich. “It’s okay, though,” he says. “This morning I was back on the diet. I had egg whites and turkey bacon for breakfast and strawberry yogurt—carb light—for a snack. No way do I plan to give up what I achieved,” he says. “I really feel great. I want to stay that way.”

And he’s not the only one. As the competitor with the highest combined percentage of weight and body-fat lost, Benson edged out fellow finalists Gary Deckman and Kelly Minner for the grand prize, but every one of the 12 contestants managed to lose weight during the NBC show. Even more surprising: They also all managed to keep losing after leaving the Malibu ranch where the show was taped last fall. “This is the real payoff, feeling great,” says Dave Fioravanti, 40, a Boston real estate developer who took home the $100,000 consolation prize last Tuesday night after beating out the other eight eliminated contestants on the Losers reunion show. “They all lost weight, got in shape and stayed with the program they started on the ranch,” says trainer Bob Harper. “This wasn’t just a game to them. It was a life change.”

Ryan Benson plans more life changes ahead. He and wife Mariah, 30, “want to start our own family as soon as possible,” he says. “That’s one reason I wanted to get fit: to be there for our kids.” He’s also mulling promotional offers—including one to represent Diet V8 Splash—and he plans to use some of his Loser loot to finance a TV pilot on children’s health. Childhood “is the time we get all our bad eating habits,” says Benson. Meanwhile, he’s staying the course with a strict diet (“My treats now are eating sugar-free Jell-0 with fat-free whipped cream”) and at least an hour of exercise a day, often with his wife by his side. “I work out with Mariah four times a week,” he says. “And it’s fun.” For her too. Although she insists she never minded her spouse’s pudgier physique, she admits she can’t quite get over his new svelteness. Says Mariah: “He looks like his high school pictures now!”

Mike Upton. Pamela Warrick in Los Angeles

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