Hiding at the back of my dance class, I struggled to keep up with the other students while trying desperately to avoid my reflection in the studio mirrors. I’d dreamt of being on stage since watching Elphaba fly through the air, belting out Defying Gravity, in the West End show Wicked. Thinking back to that wide-eyed, starstruck little girl filled me with sadness. Despite bagging a place to study musical theatre at university, I could no longer imagine myself enchanting audiences in a starring role – I wasn’t sure I’d even keep up with the chorus line.

The truth was, uni life had put me further away from my acting ambitions than ever. I missed my family and my boyfriend, Jack, intensely, and food became my home-from-home comfort. With no one to stop me, I’d eat pizza every night and snack on big bags of toffee popcorn – making healthy student meals felt like hard work after a tiring day. Then I’d celebrate the weekend with Jack by ordering a takeaway. My dance leotard soon became too tight and I found it impossible to get through a routine without gasping for breath.

It wasn’t long before doubt crept in. Was musical theatre really the right course for me? If I couldn’t picture myself on stage, why was I putting myself through four intense dance classes a week? I was ready to quit completely, but a call home to mum persuaded me to stick with performance, switching my course to Acting for Film instead.

I knew that I was compromising my dream, but I just couldn’t bear having to squeeze into that leotard any longer.

Ironically, my turning point came not long after switching courses. I’d been to a music festival with Jack during the summer break and hardly recognised myself in the photos. At 15st, I desperately wanted to do something about my weight, but I felt like I’d tried every diet going, and nothing had worked. Luckily, a passing comment from one of my mum’s friends introduced me to Slimming World. He gave me a Food Optimising book to look through and I could immediately see that making healthy student meals didn’t have to be a chore. For the first time, I felt hopeful that I’d found something that was right for me!

With my third year of uni about to start, I searched online to find a Slimming World group close to my student accommodation. From my very first group meeting, I knew that I’d found the help I was looking for. Everyone was so welcoming, and the other members’ stories were so inspiring. I was sure that I could lose weight with this incredible support, and I immediately threw myself into Food Optimising.

Switching to healthy student meals

I started planning my meals in advance, so I wouldn’t be tempted to grab pizzas or order takeaways. I prepared packed lunches to see me through the day – typically something like a wholemeal chicken sandwich, carrot sticks and cherry tomatoes. Then I set aside some time every weekend to batch cook dinners for the week ahead. Slimming World lasagne and homity pie were firm menu favourites, along with Jamaican-style curry with rice and peas (inspired by my nan’s amazing home cooking).

As well as batch cooking healthy student meals to last the whole week, I also learnt to make simple changes to my eating habits, like using low-calorie cooking spray, cutting the fat off my meat and using sweetener instead of sugar. And I started exercising again – first with gentle walks and then with spin classes and gym sessions. Before long, these little changes had totalled one big lifestyle change, and the weight started coming off steadily. Unlike some members in my group, I never had really huge weekly losses, but I also had only two gains throughout my entire journey, so the steady approach really worked for me.

Slowly, my confidence at uni returned. I started sitting at the front of the class, instead of hiding at the back, and was always the first to volunteer for acting demonstrations. By the time my final assessment came around, I felt like a different person. The shy, anxious student was gone and in her place was a confident budding actress, ready to take centre stage.

It was incredible to think that, just a year earlier, I’d come so close to giving up on performing completely.

With my degree done, my next thought was the graduation ceremony. I was so proud of myself for staying the distance, even through all the homesickness and my doubts about my abilities. It was time to celebrate my achievement, and I wanted to look amazing on the big day.

Shopping was something that I used to dread as I felt so ashamed and worried about the shop assistants judging my size. But as I neared my target weight, I felt nothing but excitement at finding the perfect graduation dress. There was just one problem: size 12 was out of stock. With my fingers crossed, I tried on a size 10 – and it fitted like a dream!

When the big day came, I strode out on to the stage wearing high heels (which I’d never felt comfortable wearing before). At 9st 13½Ibs, I weighed over 5st less than I did at my first Slimming World meeting. As I accepted the certificate that said I’d passed with a 2:1, wearing my graduation gown over that size-10 dress, I couldn’t have felt prouder or happier.

I’d discovered my happiest, most confident self – and I felt ready to take on the world!

Since graduating, three amazing opportunities have come my way. I went back to my first love and auditioned for a musical theatre production, landing my first proper acting role of Rizzo in Grease! I have so much energy now that the evening rehearsals are no problem, even after a day of working as a radiology administrator. I also took up another exciting role as a Slimming World Consultant, and standing in front of my lovely group fills me with pride. Then, I got an email from a talent agency wanting to put me on their books! I’m now waiting for auditions to come through, and when they do, I know I’ll perform with confidence and commitment.

Losing weight has filled me with self-belief. The thought of wearing a figure-hugging leotard doesn’t scare me these days! I’m happy to be in the spotlight now – and I’m ready to shine in any role.

Seven healthy student meals

As a busy student, Grace relied on stodgy pizzas and takeaways – a diet that left her low on energy and unable to give her best performance. With Slimming World, the student lifestyle doesn’t have to be unhealthy. Pasta, potatoes and rice are all unlimited Free Foods, so it’s easy to make healthy student meals that will keep you going through even the busiest study schedule. Try these filling breakfast, lunch and dinner ideas to get a First in Food Optimising!

*Weight loss will vary due to your individual circumstances and how much weight you have to lose.