Courtesy Michelle Pierce(2)
December 23, 2014 09:15 PM

In March 2013, Michelle Pierce was at a physical and mental low.

Weighing in at 360 lbs., the 5’5″ mother of one tells PEOPLE, “I wanted to be an active parent for my young son. I didn’t want to die early – I wanted to live a long, healthy life.”

That was easier said than done, as Pierce’s junk food habit of packaged foods and lots of carbs with virtually no fresh fruit or vegetables had left her feeling tired and miserable. And to make matters worse, she also lost her job.

“For the longest time, even my mom would tell me it’s cheaper and easier to be fat,” says the Colorado-based 33-year-old, who is now a retail manager at Le Creuset. “You can’t afford the fresh food, [so] you just buy the processed foods and you live on that.”

Pierce’s perceptions changed after she applied to her local WIC program (the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children). This, in turn, led her to Cooking Matters at the Store – a program run by the No Kid Hungry campaign, which teaches low-income families how to shop for healthy food on a budget.

“They take you through the grocery store and give easy recipes to make meals out of healthy items instead of just buying a box and saying, ‘That’s my meal for tonight,’ ” says Pierce, who admits to once having eaten “off the McDonald’s dollar menu” every day. Before, if I was in the kitchen it was to make cookies or cupcakes.”

Pierce started to plan a nutritious daily menu – three meals and two snacks totaling 1,200-1,300 calories – and began working out every day, pulling exercise ideas from Pinterest that she could do on her own.

“I started out at 25 minutes a day, 30 if I could handle it, and now I’ll work out with a combination of cardio and strength for up to an hour and a half or two sometimes,” says Pierce, who has lost 186 lbs. – and weighs in at 174 lbs.! “I enjoy working out. It’s a stress reliever.”

And now at Le Creuset she helps with bake sales organized by the company, with the proceeds going directly to the No Kid Hungry campaign. “They also help teach kids how to cook healthy food,” she says. “I wish that was around when I was younger.”

One of the best lessons she’s learned is that persistence is really what’s key. “It did take quite a bit of time for my taste buds to change to where I craved vegetables as opposed to a double cheeseburger,” says Pierce. “Now my favorite meal by far is veggies over a bed of hummus!”

MEAL PLAN

Breakfast: Spinach and mushroom omelette topped with hummus (made with one egg and one egg white) or blueberry pancakes (made with whole wheat flour and oatmeal)

Morning snack: An apple and cheese

Lunch: Either a protein shake or roasted veggies and hummus

Afternoon snack: Almonds or carrots sticks

Dinner: Lean meat and veggies

For more amazing transformations, diet tips that really work and the hottest Hollywood slimdowns, check out PEOPLE’s Half Their Size issue, on newsstands Tuesday

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