Mariah Stolfi’s road to losing weight has been full of ups and downs.
“I grew up a binge eater,” Stolfi, 19, tells PEOPLE. “I remember in fifth grade I was around 150 lbs. I weighed more than my mom and wore larger sizes than she did.”
Her poor eating habits were exacerbated by a stressful childhood.
“I lived split time with both my mom and my dad but moved many times growing up — more than 20 households before I graduated high school. The moves meant changing schools often, which was overwhelming,” she says. “I used food to comfort myself.”
She continued: “We also were pretty poor so we ate a lot of cereal, ramen noodles and frozen pizzas. I was eating half a pizza in early elementary school. I would sneak food up to my room and then flush the wrappers down the toilet to not get in trouble.”
The Wisconsin native also struggled with health issues. In her early teens she was diagnosed with polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS) and sleep apnea. “It is extremely difficult to lose weight and maintain weight loss with PCOS,” says Stolfi, who reached her highest weight of 286 lbs. at age 18. “And the lack of good sleep caused me to be lethargic, which meant I didn’t have the energy to work out.”
Wanting to finally get healthy, Stolfi decided to undergo vertical sleeve gastrectomy surgery in July 2017.
Now down 84 lbs., she is sharing her journey on social media. “Once I discovered the weight loss surgery Instagram community I knew I had to be a part of it,” says Stolfi, whose candid photos and videos have garnered her more than 14,000 followers on Instagram and YouTube combined.
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She is honest with her followers about her struggles. “Weight loss journeys are hard for everyone,” says Stolfi, who hopes to lose an additional 60 to 70 lbs. “But rapid weight loss at my age has really been hard mentally. My mind hasn’t caught up with my body. I still see myself as almost 300 lbs.”
Although she experiences ups and downs, she is committed to her new lifestyle, which includes a low-carb/high-protein diet, along with meal prepping and running.
“There are days where I feel on top of the world in this new body of mine. There are also days where I feel the absolute worst,” she says. “I am truly working on loving myself and the body I am.”
A college student and education assistant who works with children with special needs, Stolfi is also hoping to get a degree in nutrition.
In the meantime, she has this advice to others struggling with their weight: “This journey is 80 percent mental and 20 percent physical. If you don’t fix your mindset you will not succeed on your weight loss journey.”