Back in 2013, a year before former Food Network star Gina Neely divorced her now ex-husband (and Down Home with the Neelys costar) Pat, Neely realized she was no longer comfortable with her size 8 body and embarked on a “25 lbs. in 12 weeks” challenge to change her body for good.
Neely—who was a spokesperson for George Forman Grills, the company that sponsored the challenge at the time—says she ended up overhauling her diet and losing 35 lbs., eventually dropping to a size 0.
She has kept most of the weight off over the years, though tells PEOPLE she purposefully put a little of that weight back on to “round” herself out.
“I was about to look like a bobblehead, I had to catch myself,” says Neely, who is featured in the new issue of PEOPLE, on stands Friday. “Because once you get in that habit of losing weight, you start looking big in your head.”
“I think as we get older, we need a little weight on us to fill us out and make us look healthier,” Neely adds. “You can get too skinny and you’re like, ‘Where she going?’”
A big part of Neely’s weight loss and maintenance was her new attitude towards eating, swapping out her comfort food-filled kitchen with far lighter ingredients.
“As I got into my fabulous 50s, I still felt vibrant, young, and fresh,” says Neely, 52. “I changed my diet to match. I make healthier food with ingredients that are still tasty but good for you; food that’s light and fun.”
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“When I cook now, it’s more about what’s in [my food],” Neely says. “Is it good for my body? Is it making my body better and enhancing it? We cook for so many reasons. We cook when we’re sad, we cook when we’re happy. But are we fully enjoying our food and cooking in a more healthier approach?”
Neely’s meals these days are filled with smaller portions and leaner dishes. “I do chicken and turkey, though I tend to eat more seafood lately; Salmon with a stew of mixed vegetables, like a broccoli, cauliflower and squash, for example. That’s a great meal. And I keep my plate as colorful as possible.”
She also puts “spinach in everything,” including her shrimp and spinach salad with berries—her recipe can be found in this week’s issue of PEOPLE. “I love spinach—I eat it like a crazy woman,” she says. “I wanted something light-hearted and fun that you could just enjoy with the girls and have a glass of Prosecco.”
This new approach to cooking is something Neely hopes to teach her fans in an upcoming cookbook, which she hopes will have “accessible, easy, family-driven, recipes for working moms who don’t feel like they need to have 1,000 ingredients to cook.”
For more on Gina Neely’s new life, pick up this week’s episode of PEOPLE on newsstands Friday.
And for those hoping to see Neely cooking again on TV, she’s game. “I love anything with food and real conversation,” she says. “I’d want to do a show like I do when I’m cooking with my girlfriends; more like food is in the foreground but the conversation is bigger than the dish. Some kind of concept like that would be amazing.”
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Until then, fans can catch Neely on Bravo’s To Rome for Love—the reality show that had Neely, as well as a handful of other black single women, traveling to Italy to date men outside of their comfort zone. While viewers will have to wait until the series concludes to see if Neely finds her Mr. Right, she says she did find one thing she loved on the trip: the food.
“I did try to eat the whole Italy, I’ll tell you that,” Neely says, laughing. “The food was so good! It wasn’t processed, so I didn’t gain a pound. As a matter of fact, I lost a couple pounds in Italy!”
To Rome for Love airs Sundays (9 p.m. ET) on Bravo.