Worried She Wouldn't Live to See Her Daughter Grow Up, This Mom Lost 268 Lbs.

"I feel more confident about seeing tomorrow, and being able to live a longer life," says Mary Woodka-Ullery

For most of her life, Mary Woodka-Ullery was “nutritionally naïve.” Born in 1950 after World War II, her family believed that “a chubby kid was a healthy kid,” and a sign that they could afford to feed her well — which they did, filling her up on homemade breads, noodles and candy.

That lack of food knowledge continued through her college years, but really got out of hand when she became pregnant with her daughter in 1973.

“To me, that was a license to eat,” Woodka-Ullery, 70, tells PEOPLE for the 2021 Half Their Size issue. “I just ate, and it caused health problems — my daughter was in fetal distress, and I had to have a c-section.”

After safely delivering her daughter Noël, the special education teacher “just kept eating and eating my way up,” hitting 250, then 300, then 350 and finally her highest weight of 390 lbs.

Mary Ullery
Mary Woodka-Ullery. Mary Ullery

“Even during that time, I would look at myself and I'd say, ‘Yeah Mary, you're fat, but you're a lot of other things, too. You got a lot of friends, you're smart, you're successful at your career,’ ” she says. “But it started to present problems in my everyday life.”

Woodka-Ullery “started to worry about things that normal people don't have to worry about,” like going to somebody's house and breaking their furniture, or carpooling and not being able to use the seatbelt.

For more on Mary and four more women who changed their lives to get healthy, pick up a copy of PEOPLE, on newsstands now

She was also starting to have health problems. Woodka-Ullery, who lives in South Bend, Indiana, had high cholesterol, high triglycerides, high blood pressure and was “borderline diabetic.”

But the real turning point came from a sudden realization. Every year at Christmastime, Woodka-Ullery buys her daughter items covered in her name, Noël.

“One year, when she was maybe 16 years old, I was buying her Noël stuff and just out of the blue I thought to myself, ‘You have got to do something about your weight, or you’re not going to be here for Noël. Noël needs you more than she needs Noel wrapping paper.’ ”

Woodka-Ullery tried a few crash diets, which didn’t work, before finding Atkins in March 1998.

“That’s what did it for me,” she says. “This was something I could live with that wasn’t a diet; it’s a lifestyle, where I can eat a balance of healthy proteins, fats, and different carbs.”

Mary Ullery
Mary Woodka-Ullery at The Pigeon & The Hen Pottery Shop. Angela Jackson

The program was a learning process for Woodka-Ullery, who finally understood how different foods made her feel, and how to pick ones that kept her full. After just two days, she “had way more energy,” which kept her going, and helped her incorporate water aerobics and dancing into her life.

After two years, Woodka-Ullery had lost 200 lbs., and is now down to 128 lbs., which she calls her “optimal weight.” But more than the numbers on the scale, she’s just thrilled to have plenty of time to spend with Noël, her “best friend.”

Mary Ullery
Mary Woodka-Ullery. Angela Jackson

“I feel more confident about seeing tomorrow, and being able to live a longer life,” she says. “I gave myself my life back, and I gave my daughter her mother.”

“I started this at about 40 years old. I'm going to be 71 in January. It’s never too late.”

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