At almost 500 lbs., Michelle Ball was an emotional eater.
After marrying her high school sweetheart at 21, she quickly gave birth to two children 20 months apart, and gradually, Ball says, “let [herself] go.”
“When I got married I was a little smaller than I am now,” Ball — who currently weighs 180 lbs. after undergoing an incredible body transformation — tells PEOPLE. “My husband at the time was in medical school and residency and we had small children. It was very stressful for both of us. I dealt with it by putting their needs before my own.”
She continues: “For every emotion I had during that time, food was my drug of choice. I kind of numbed myself that way and reached for food for sadness, stress, depression, anxiety, happiness; I celebrated with food.”
After a “never-ending cycle” of yo-yo dieting, the self-described “closet eater” says she knew she needed to change. “I would do a lot of nighttime snacking and snacking during the day,” says Ball.
“I remember looking at the scale at 497 lbs. and freaking out. I could not believe how heavy I was,” says the stay-at-home mom. “I thought, I have to take control of this because no one is going to do it for me.”
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At the end of 2013, Ball, 37, read a book called Intuitive Eating, and learned about eating mindfully.
“I started really thinking: ‘Why am I eating so much? Why can’t I lose this weight? This is ridiculous – I’m a strong person, I’m educated, I’ve accomplished a lot in my life. I [was] athletic. I was not fat when I got married. I should be able to overcome this,'” says Ball. “[So] every time I went to grab food or a drink that had a calorie in it, I thought to myself: Am I genuinely hungry or thirsty? Do I need this or am I reaching for it out of habit or to fill some void?”
The Joplin, Missouri resident cut way back on portions, but still allowed her favorite foods. “I knew telling myself I could not have certain things did not work for me. If you told me I couldn’t have carbs, all I wanted was carbs.” she says. “Honestly, I’ve lost all this weight eating what I want. I still eat pizza, I still eat Chinese food. I have not restricted myself, but I eat only when I’m genuinely hungry and I stop when I’m satisfied, not stuffed…that had not been a feeling I was familiar with for about 15 years.”
Once on her new eating plan, she decided to start walking around her neighborhood. At the time, the former high school runner could barely make it around the block.
“The first 100 to 150 lbs. happened so quickly. I think it all kind of clicked and my body was like, ‘Okay. You’re eating way less and you’re exercising.’ The fat was just melting off.”
“It slowly morphed — over several years — into me walking, then jogging, then running, then running 5Ks, and then going to CrossFit with my sister, then running a Spartan Race,” says Ball who is now into heavy lifting and works out six days a week.
By August 2016, Ball had lost 317 lbs. and hit her goal weight. Her personal life also changed quite a bit. She had gotten divorced, then engaged — and had given birth to her third child.
“I really love my body because it’s taken me so long to get here and I’ve worked so, so, so hard and I still have to work hard and I will always have to work hard to not gain the weight back,” she says. “I hope [my story] helps others who are hopeless and do not know where to start.”