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For most of Merial Levy’s life, food was her “best friend” — and so was the staff at the drive-thru.
“They knew my voice when I’d drive up, that’s how bad it was,” the third-grade teacher, 50, tells PEOPLE for the 2018 “How We Lost 100 Lbs.” issue.
Levy surpassed 200 lbs. as a freshman in college, and after her daughter was born in 1994 and before her son arrived in 2000, she had reached 300 lbs. — but her highest weight came following her father’s death.
“I felt that, in many cases, food was a problem-solver for me,” she says. “My dad’s death really affected me a lot, because I was a daddy’s girl. I think I turned to food to try to comfort myself, and try to deal with the emotions and the grief that I’d never let out. I just kind of absorbed it through food.”
Levy never had major health problems — only a mysterious nagging cough — but at 343 lbs., she was struggling to keep up with her students during the school day.
“We had a wheelchair at the school, and I would actually have my students pushing me around just so I can be there,” she says. “It was sad because it wasn’t because I had any health issues other than that. It was the fact that I was so heavy that my knees were just buckling.”
For more on Levy and four more women who lost 100 lbs., pick up a copy of PEOPLE, on newsstands Friday.
Feeling that “embarrassment” was enough to convince Levy that it was time to make a change. She challenged herself to give up the drive-thru for a month, and after that went well, she signed up for Weight Watchers.
“When I first started I expected this huge loss, cause I’m thinking, ‘Okay I’m big, I’m gonna have a really big, like 10-15-lb. loss the first week.’ But I lost less than 2 lbs., and at that moment I realized, ‘That’s okay, because that’s 2 pounds less than I was the day before,’ ” she says. “I decided that I’m just going to let the weight come off slowly. I’ve tried so many different weight loss plans in the past, and they didn’t work because I would stop. This time I was going to keep going.”
Levy learned to enjoy cooking her own meals, and began working out five days a week at 4 a.m., before the school day starts.
“People think I’m crazy — I think I’m crazy — but I couldn’t imagine not going to the gym now. It’s a part of my life,” she says.
And slowly but steadily, Levy lost her first 60 lbs. over four years, and then the next 101 in two more. She says Weight Watchers worked when other plans didn’t because it’s not a diet.
“I’ve tried many other diets in the past, and I lose the weight, but guess what? Diets are temporary for me,” she explains. “I get sick of eating whatever little small portion you gave me and I go right back to what I used to eat. I didn’t learn anything.”
But this time, “I realized this journey is not made to be convenient or easy,” she says. “It’s a lifelong journey I need to be able to live with the rest of my life. This journey doesn’t end.”
Levy now feels like her life has completely changed.
“I can look in the mirror and say, wow, my body has shaped and formed into this person that I didn’t know existed all those years. It feels really good,” she says. “I really lost an entire person.”
And most shocking to Levy, is once she hit 100 lbs. down, her nagging cough completely disappeared.
“It’s a great feeling, just to know that I healed my body from inside without even knowing it because of my weight loss,” she says. “That’s just overwhelmingly amazing to me.”