"I was trying to do something healthy for myself but people were laughing at me," Kara Richardson Whitely tells PEOPLE

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Credit: Stacey Pratt

Some people kickstart a healthy lifestyle by trying a cleanse or buying a gym membership, but not Kara Richardson Whitely. The 300-lb. author decided to climb Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania three separate times to take control of her health.

“Hiking Kilimanjaro was about figuring out why I struggled with food for so long and how I could change the direction of my future,” Whitely, 40, tells PEOPLE of the journey she documented for her new book, Gorge. “For years I was living in this spiral of overeating where I would eat because I felt bad and because I felt bad, I’d eat some more. It was truly about getting out of that.”

And although she barely dropped 10 lbs. by the end of her third trek – a 7-day hike in 2011 – she felt proud of her accomplishment.

“My success and failure as a person is not based on a number,” says the mom of two. “I wouldn’t say I’m not worried about pounds, but my aim is to have small victories. For example, if I take my girls for a family swim at the Y, that’s a victory. It takes more courage to put on a bathing suit than any mountain.”

Whitely says one of the more challenging parts of her hike was when other hikers were betting against her reaching the top.

“Here I was trying to do something healthy for myself, trying to be positive and doing all the right things to get myself in gear and yet people are laughing at me,” she says. “That’s what people go through on a daily basis if they’re plus size. For years people made fun of me and my body and it doesn’t matter what language it’s in – I just knew it.”

Now, the New Jersey native hopes to inspire other people to get active no matter their size.

“There are so many benefits to fitness, and it’s not just about going from fat to skinny in a single walk,” she says. “When it comes to being obese, sometimes just going to battle is winning.”

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