Hearing that felt "cruel at the time," says Linda Migliaccio, but it was the push she needed to get healthy

Linda Migliaccio grew up in a household where comfort food was always on the menu. Her mom, a “great cook,” constantly had cookies and fresh bread coming out of the oven, and food, to Migliaccio, was “connected to feeling better.”

But it also became an issue for the New Jersey native when she hit high school and felt like she was heavier than her classmates and the other girls on the cheerleading team. That kicked off years of fighting with her weight, starting with her first diet at age 15.

“In high school, I was fighting 25 to 30 lbs.,” Migliaccio tells PEOPLE for the 2021 Half Their Size issue. “As I got older, I was battling higher and higher numbers — in college, it was 50 or 60 lbs., then 70 or 80 when I was in my 20s.”

Migliaccio, now 58, tried countless diets through the years, but as soon as she lost the weight she would go back to binging on all the foods she missed and gain it all back. In total, Migliaccio, who has since been diagnosed with a binge eating disorder, estimates she’s lost a significant amount of weight at least 12 times.

Linda Migliaccio
Linda Migliaccio
| Credit: Linda Migliaccio

Her highest weight of 349 lbs., though, came at “the lowest point in my life, when my mom passed away,” she says. While caring for her mom, Migliaccio had gained 200 lbs., and after a fall in her bathroom she tore her ACL and meniscus in her right knee. Now with her mom gone, she “hit rock bottom.”

“I didn’t want to be here anymore,” she says. “I wanted to be in heaven with my mom. It was just too hard.”

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

And a visit to a surgeon to look at her knee seemed at first to only made matters worse.

“The surgeon said, ‘I'm sorry, I can't do surgery because you're too large to withstand the rigorous rehab,’ ” Migliacchio recalls. “And then he said, ‘And I'll tell you what, if you don't lose weight, I give you one year and you'll be wheelchair bound.’ ”

At the time, his words “were hard to hear, and I thought they were very cruel,” she says. “But he did me the biggest favor of my life being blunt like that. It was what I needed to hear, and that's what turned me around.”

In 2016, Migliaccio started following a nutritarian diet, which emphasizes fruits, vegetables, grains and nuts. But she also didn’t cut out any foods completely, which was one of the reasons why it worked.

Linda Migliaccio
Linda Migliaccio at The Movement Lifestyle & Fitness Studio in Allentown, NJ
| Credit: Grace Huang

“I never call myself vegan or vegetarian, because I just can’t make the commitment,” she says. “I love cheesesteaks and ice cream, and as soon as I tell myself I can’t have them, I’ll eat as much as I can. Instead, I stick to my plan 80 percent of the time, and 20 percent of the time I can go a bit rogue.”

Migliaccio also worked out consistently, but the real key to losing weight — for good this time — was changing her mindset.

“What was different this time than all the other times was I finally made a mind, body, spirit connection,” she says. “I always thought of my weight loss journey as a numerical goal and a size goal, and when I got to near that size, then I would just relax and think, ‘Okay, I'm done.’ This time it was very different.”

To find that mind-body-spirit connection, Migliaccio picked up yoga, deepened her Christian faith and started meditating. But the biggest help, she says, was the unwavering support of her best friends and her TOPS — Take Off Pounds Sensibly — weight loss support group.

Linda Migliaccio
Linda Migliaccio
| Credit: Linda Migliaccio; Grace Huang

“They're my family,” says Migliaccio, who has led TOPS groups since 2009. “They're the people that have seen me in my ups and downs, they're the people that see me crying on a Saturday where just binged and I'm afraid that I'm going to gain all my weight back. They’re the ones on the sidelines cheering, and it made all the difference in the world.”

In two years, Migliaccio lost 189 lbs., and didn't even need knee surgery. She says that this weight loss "is for good.”

“I’m finally starting to tap into what makes me happy,” she says. “I’m learning that I love to travel — I recently drove across the country and it was the best thing I’ve ever done. I have so much more confidence now, and I’ll walk around New York City by myself. It’s so different when you take off those chains and you don’t limit yourself anymore.”