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4. She doesn't fight her love of food.

Lakshmi has loved cooking -- and eating -- since she was a child. "I've always had a well-developed palate," she says. "Even as a toddler I was rooting around the kitchen, tasting different things." She learned to cook at a young age. Growing up in India, New York, and Los Angeles, she says, "I was always hanging at the hem of whatever maternal relative was in the kitchen, helping shell peas and peel potatoes." Lakshmi turned her food passion into a cookbook, Easy Exotic: Low-Fat Recipes from Around the World, which led to her first TV show on the Food Network, Padma’s Passport. The rest is Top Chef history.

5. She indulges in simple, homespun food.

Despite the four-star gourmet meals she has sampled on Top Chef (and in her travels around the world), Lakshmi prefers traditional comfort food at home. For a solo dinner, she might whip up an omelet with sauteed mushrooms and spinach, flavored with thyme, oregano, and fresh red chilies; a one-pot meal ("I don't like doing dishes"); or a tray of simple sandwiches (think BLT, grilled cheese, and egg salad). Keeping it simple saves on calories and focuses on wholesome ingredients. Try one of Lakshmi’s one-pot wonders: Braised Beef or Lamb With Tomato and Cumin.

6. She accepts who she is.

Lakshmi absolutely doesn't believe that the perfect female form is that of a stick-thin 18-year-old. That's why she posed sans clothes for Allure's May 2009 issue."I thought it was a really good forum to show women that you can be curvy and you can be healthy and you can eat,” she says. "Those things are not exclusive to each other, and you can have a beautiful body when you're in your 30s. It may not be the body you had in your 20s, but it can be just as elegant and beautiful and sensual and feminine."

Beauty, she adds, "does come in all colors and shapes and forms. And the thing that makes us not look like everybody else is very important.”

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