The Biggest Loser‘s Heba Salama is reflecting on how her perception of health and fitness has changed since being on the show.
The season 6 at-home winner, 44, says despite regaining the weight after the show, she remains grateful for the experience. "I took what I wanted from it," she says.
Some contestants have spoken out about regaining weight since being featured, and one study concluded that the extreme dieting damaged their metabolisms. Former contestant Joelle Gwynn alleged in 2016 that contestants were given drugs to lose weight.
And trainer Jillian Michaels, who spent 12 seasons on the show, said she regrets some of the methods used. In 2021, the fitness star said “the producers gamified weight loss” and the show should have included a mental health professional.
But Salama isn’t fazed. “You can look at it however you want,” says the photographer, who opened her own business after her reality television experience. “We were all adults. Everyone makes choices. You put yourself there. I think some people are bitter. I think the diet culture goes through phases,” she explains. “I learned a lot. What it really gave me was the gift of empowerment, knowing if you want to do anything, then you can do it.”
She adds, "I was killing myself working out, and that wasn't maintainable, but I'm not gonna go and talk s— about the producers or a show that gave me my life back."
Still, Salama tells PEOPLE that she doesn't think The Biggest Loser would be successful today, admitting that she's hesitant to discuss her time on the show with her daughter. "I don't want her to be like, 'What do you mean you went on a TV show to lose a bunch of weight for money?' I have to really delicately unpack that," she says.
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While on The Biggest Loser, Salama went from 294 lbs. to 156 lbs. However, she explains that "life just kinda happened" since her time on the show, and she ultimately regained some of the weight, although she isn't sure exactly how much since she no longer weighs herself.
"I was a size 24 when I went on the show and now I'm around an 18," Salama tells PEOPLE, adding that she feels comfortable mentally and physically. "I do work out. I started taking private tennis lessons. I love it. I move my body in ways that feel good. I'm okay."
Salama says she's learned to adapt an "all-around healthy lifestyle" and embrace her body.
"Did I want to be a fitness person and concentrate on grilled chicken and broccoli for the rest of my life, or did I want to just move on and be happy?" she says. "I'm in a space where I really embrace who I am and I'm happier now than I was then."
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“I was so wrapped up in the size of my clothes and when my next workout was,” Salama, who’s still close with trainer Bob Harper, continues. “And who’s looking at me and [if] I’ve gone up five or six pounds or not. I don’t want to live in that space. Mentally healthy, what does it mean to take care of myself? Does it mean that I drink wine and not go to spin class three times a day? Yeah, that’s what it means for me.”
She adds that she's simply embracing what makes her feel and look good, "like every other woman." Though there are times where she'll analyze parts of her body that make her insecure, she says she's in a "healthier space" when she's not "obsessing" over that.