January 04, 2018 09:00 AM

Melody Perdue’s emotional relationship with food started as a child.

“My mother wasn’t able to raise me fully,” she tells PEOPLE in the 2018 Half Their Size issue. “I always associated food with happiness. I thought, ‘Food is not going to leave me.’ ”

The 34-year-old carried this mindset into adulthood, where her high-fat diet eventually led to a weight of 308 lbs.

“I would hide and eat six to eight chocolate bars a day, and that’s not even including the baked macaroni and cheese and fried chicken that I was having as well,” she says.

 

Courtesy Melody Perdue

Perdue was diagnosed as prediabetic, and had sleep apnea and a mild form of polycystic ovary syndrome, but it wasn’t until a life-threatening car accident that she realized she needed to make a change.

“I was on my sister’s couch, and I sat there and I cried to God,” she recalls. “I said, ‘I’m sick and tired of feeling like this.’ ”

The next day, her prayers were answered in the form of a commercial for packaged meal-plan program Optavia.

“I called the number and they set me up with this amazing coach,” she says. “She is what helped me to lose all this weight because she’s always been there, from day one to now.”

Perry Hagopian

Perdue stopped the program while she was pregnant with her son but started again shortly after giving birth in 2013, wanting to be healthy for him.

“It breaks my heart, but I thought ‘How am I going to be able to keep up with him?’” she says. “I needed to get it together, get back on plan, and do what I need to do to be able to, not only be a role model for him, but be able to play with him. The simple things.”

Without any gimmicks — just through healthy eating and exercise — our 2018 Half Their Size stars shed hundreds of pounds. For more on their stories and weight loss tips, pick up a copy of PEOPLE, on newsstands Friday.

With that motivation, Perdue was able to follow the meal plans (which include shakes, bars and one meal of protein with three servings of non-starch vegetables), consistently keep a food journal and walk 30 minutes a day, three times a week — ultimately leading to a 180-lb. weight loss.

“Now I have so much energy,” she says. “I was able to ride a bike for the first time at 33.”

And as an Optavia coach herself, she’s not only helping others reach her goal, but setting an example for her child as well.

“I’m teaching my son better habits — to use food as fuel and not as a means for happiness,” she says. “I actually hold my head up a lot higher now.”

Have you lost half your size? Send us your story at halftheirsize@people.com.

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