A decade ago, Lauren Mead was 380 pounds and so overweight she couldn't have a conversation without gasping for breath.
But several health scares forced her to revamp her lifestyle, and today, at 162 pounds, she's lost more than half of her original body weight — and kept it off for almost three years.
It hasn't been easy, but the 37-year-old single mom of three, who lives in Chester, Virginia, swears by the small, incremental changes that have allowed her to lose weight after pregnancy and ultimately embrace a healthy lifestyle. Here's her story in her own words.
The Diagnosis That Motivated Me to Lose Weight for Good
At first, my motivation was the fact that I could not read my then-5-year-old daughter a story without stopping to catch my breath. This was in 2007, when I was pushing 400 pounds and so heavy I literally had to rock to get out of the car.
I was forced to face reality: This wasn't just baby weight anymore. I had obesity and was unhealthy. Food had become my heroin, and I was setting up my child for an unhealthy future with a mother who would die young.
I was able to shed about 140 pounds — and keep it off — until 2011, when I regained much of the weight during a messy divorce.
Then, three years ago, I was diagnosed with psoriatic arthritis. The medications my physician prescribed put me at high risk for liver failure. I had a hunch that if I lost 100 pounds and dramatically changed my lifestyle and diet, I'd get my illness under control. Turns out, I was right.
"Changing my life didn't seem so overwhelming, since I was only working on three things at a time."
How Setting Weekly Goals Kept Me on Track
I started very slow, and kept a diet journal with me all the time. I used it to set three weekly goals for myself and write out my weekly workout schedule.
Two of my goals would add something to my life — for example, eat five servings of vegetables and drink 64 ounces of water every day — and the third would restrict something, like limiting myself to dessert three days a week. I would keep those goals every week until I could do them effortlessly, then I would set new goals. This way, changing my life didn't seem so overwhelming, since I was only working on three things at a time.
As the weight began to peel off, I started focusing on exercise. I started with the exercise bike one day a week for five minutes. I added five minutes to my workouts every three weeks. When I reached 20 minutes of sustained time on the bike, I added a second day with five minutes.
After about six months of this, I added a weight-lifting routine. Once again, I started small — one day a week doing strength exercises with my own body weight. After about two months of two days a week, I added 2-pound weights.
Read more: Discover Your Ultimate Weight-Loss Workout Plan
My Biggest Challenge: Overcoming My History of Addiction
I was a homeless, underweight, IV cocaine and heroin drug addict when I found out I was four weeks pregnant in 2006. I was scared enough to quit cold turkey.
But during my pregnancy, I coped with being sober by binge eating. I got married to the baby's father, who was a cook. He made these delicious meals for me — eggs, French toast, hash browns, french fries loaded with pork. My metabolism was damaged from years of drug use, and within about a year I had gone from 120 to over 300 pounds. I'd essentially substituted one addiction — drugs — with a second one: food.
Read more: 9 Ways to Break Up With Emotional Eating for Good
What really helped was turning to my diet journal. Every time I had a compulsion to binge eat, I would write about it: what I was craving, what was going on in my life, what I was thinking and what I could do other than eat. This helped distract me from food.
"Three years ago, I couldn't even walk the length of my house without stopping to rest. This past summer, I did a 10-mile hiking trip with my kids with 50 pounds strapped to my back."
How Exercise Turned My Life Around
I made a deal with myself. Three years ago, when I was diagnosed with psoriatic arthritis, I had such severe pain in my legs and back I couldn't even walk the length of my house without stopping to rest. I was so fatigued I couldn't make it through the day without a nap. I felt like I was dying.
I told myself, "Yes, exercise hurts, but you need to do it to feel better. If it still hurts in two months, you can stop."
But two months later, it was much easier to move around, I needed fewer naps and I was experiencing less pain during the day. So I kept going.
Today, I weight-lift two to three days a week with heavy weights, and I do cardio four to five days a week for an hour. This past summer, I did a 10-mile hiking trip with my kids with 50 pounds strapped to my back. I'm in the best shape of my entire life.
My Best Advice for Others
Start slow. You didn't gain all your weight in a day, and you won't lose it in a day, either. Don't try to lose it quickly with complete lifestyle changes overnight and huge calorie deficits. It won't work. I did it so slowly that I tricked myself into making it easy.
You also shouldn't beat yourself up if you occasionally fall off the wagon. Changing behavior isn't linear. About three months ago, I bought a big value box of granola bars for my kids after my workout. I was so hungry I ate the entire darn thing, all 24 of them over the course of five hours.
I was angry at myself, but you know what? It happens. I had chicken and veggies for dinner and got right back on track. I also learned that I can't keep granola bars in my house anymore because they're clearly a trigger food!