2011 Photograph courtesy of Judy
Diane Sheya, right, helps students select ingredients.

Be careful what you wish for! A couple of weeks ago, I wrote a column about NBC's "The Biggest Loser," speculating as to if/why some of the contestants purposely left the show. Since I'd heard that contestant Denise "Deni" Hill of Bountiful likes Zumba, I remarked that I hoped to someday bump into her in a Zumba class.

The morning the column ran, I was dancing away in a Body Jam class at the Skills Fitness Center in Centerville. It dawned on me that the woman dancing next to me looked familiar. I did a double-take, and finally got the nerve to ask. Yes, it was Deni Hill. And she's looking a LOT thinner than when she left the show about four-and-a-half months ago.

Next week at the show's finale on May 24, she has a shot at winning the $100,000 prize for the eliminated player that has lost the highest percentage of weight.

"I do feel that I will be in the top four, and I plan to be number one," she said. "But if I say anything less than 'Of course I'm going to win,' my husband tells me I need to think positive."

She can't divulge her weight, but said she's lost at least as many pounds at home as she did during her time at the Biggest Loser Ranch. And the 59-year-old Hill was consistently among the top four players for weight loss while she was on the show. Not bad for the second oldest contestant this season.

Hill confessed that she's been so busy that she hasn't had time to watch all of the episodes of this season's show.

"But it's actually kind of fun watching it," she said. "I thought they portrayed us very well, just like we really were."

The most important thing she learned from the experience is "I can do anything that I set my heart to. We were all able to do way more than we ever thought we could," she said, referring to the intense physical challenges and grueling workouts.

It's a far cry from the old Deni. "I watched every season of the Biggest Loser from the beginning, I would sit there with my ice cream and cry."

When she came back from "the ranch," she quit her desk job as an administrative assistant so that she could exercise 31/2 to 41/2 hours a day.

"I knew if I wanted to do this, I needed to make it a full-time job," she said. "I'm lucky enough to have the support at home."

She works out with two different personal trainers — one at Four Pillar Fitness and another at the South Davis Recreation Center. She also attends fitness classes from yoga to Zumba, and puts in mile after mile on the treadmill.

"A personal trainer is great, but not everyone can afford it," she said, when asked about weight-loss advice. "But many gyms or rec centers offer classes that are as good as a personal trainer. Take advantage of those classes."

She credits her daughter Sarah Nitta's "cute personality" for getting past the interview process to get on the show, adding, "She was my golden ticket."

Her exit from the show was a bit controversial: She and another parent, Jesse Wornum, purposely gained water weight to be sent home. Because of alliances forged among some of the other players, Hill said she felt the need to sacrifice herself to save Sarah from possible elimination. But Sarah was sent home two weeks later.

"Hindsight is 20-20," Hill said. "At the time, I thought that was my only choice to keep Sarah. Now I wish I would have just tried as hard to lose as much weight as I could. But it's what it is."

Eliminated players aren't forgotten, however. The Biggest Loser's trainers, Brett Hoebel and Cara Castronuova, regularly call her with advice and support. She's also able to turn to the staff dietitian, Cheryl Forsberg, for nutrition advice.

"I have been eating healthy for the first time, and I have more energy than I've had in the last 30 years," she said. "And it's very maintainable. I can eat this way for the rest of my life and be happy."

The plan includes at least five fruits and vegetables a day, and lean protein. One favorite meal is a flatbread wrap that includes jalapeno Greek yogurt dip, a little guacamole that's mostly avocado, with either lean chicken, fish or quinoa black bean salad, all kinds of vegetables, and a little Newman's Own low-fat Ginger Sesame dressing.

"It tastes wonderful!" she said. "It's good for my body and it may have calories, but they're healthy calories."

If she's craving chocolate, she nibbles on a bit of sugar-free dark chocolate, or a Healthy Choice frozen fudge bar.

She said one of her downfalls was that, "before, I never combined the exercise with the diet. And I would just do those crazy 500-calorie diets."

Six of the 22 contestants this season were members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints: Moses Kinikini and Kaylee Kinikini of Idaho; Rulon Gardner and Justin Pope of Logan, and Deni and Sarah, who now lives in Las Vegas.

"All six of us who were LDS all ended up on the same team," she said. "So we were able to get together on Sunday and have our own meeting and talk about our feelings and our faith. That really helped me when my daughter got married and I couldn't go home; they gave me a blessing. It was really good to have each other. "

Her faith also guided her through the game-playing that is a part of reality TV. "Integrity was the most important thing in everything that Sarah and I did," she said.

Deni was reluctant to say much about the abrupt exit of Gardner, a former Olympian. He announced he was leaving for "personal reasons," and walked off the show. In a press release, he thanked the show's staff and trainers for helping him get back in shape.

"I'm not sure of all the reasons he left, but Rulon was always supportive of me and was there for me when I needed him," she said.

Her official bio from the show mentions that as a mother of eight, Deni found that she took care of everyone else but herself. "Now the pendulum has swung the other way," she said. "My kids know Mom's busy right now, but I still talk to them all the time. My youngest is now 19, and that makes a difference."

For those who struggle with finding a balance, she says, "Be sure you are not spread so thin that you might think you are there for your kids, but you're really busy snapping at them. If I take a little time for myself, I can give to them more."

She said since she's been home, she's met many people who have been inspired to lose weight by watching the show.

"They did it all on their own, and they are heroes," she said. "They are totally amazing."

Who does she think will win the $250,000 and title of "Biggest Loser?"

"I love all of the final four! I go back and forth between Olivia and Irene, but it depends on what Jay can lose at home. Really, it's a toss-up, but it will be very close."

Valerie Phillips is the former Deseret News food editor. She blogs at www.chewandchat.blogspot.com. Email: vphillips@desnews.com