During college, Hannah Lester knew she was the "fat friend" — and she hated it. But that didn't stop her from living off burgers and fries. She worked at a fast food restaurant, so it was the easiest option on most days.
“I picked up fast food up on the way to class. It really became my go-to,” the school librarian, 31, from Puxico, Missouri, told TODAY. “I didn’t make very healthy choices. I was pretty lazy.”
Thanks to a steady diet of unhealthy food and little exercise, she kept gaining weight. At 5 feet 6 inches tall, she weighed 285 pounds.
After she graduated and started her first job, there was finally an opportunity to make some changes: a weight-loss challenge among her co-workers.
“It gave me a reason to lose the weight,” she said. “I kind of wanted to prove myself that I can do this.”
Lester first set a moderate goal: to lose 35 pounds from January to May 2012. She stopped eating fast food and reduced her soda consumption, going from six to one a day. She increased how much water she drank and started walking more.
“Something just clicked,” she said. “I lost that first 10 pounds and realized I could do it. I kept doing it because I wanted to win.”
Lester shed 35 pounds by March, reaching her goals two months early.
“It came off really, really fast for me in the beginning,” she said. “I needed to lose it so badly, the weight came off easily.”
After losing 50 pounds, Lester modified her habits to stay on track. She started using a stepper at the gym and went from walking one mile to four miles.
“I just started eating at home more. I didn’t actively make that decision to eat healthier,” she said.
In three years, she lost 100 pounds and she has maintained her weight for three years, before losing an additional 12 pounds. She's proud of how far she's come.
“I really can do something if I honestly set my mind to it," she said. "I am truly happy with what I accomplished."
Lester, who shared her story in the Start TODAY Facebook group, provides tips for others hoping to shed weight.
1. Keep 'fat' clothes as a reminder.
Simply glancing at her old clothes helps Lester remember how far she has come and how she doesn’t want to regain the weight.
“I went from a size 22 to a size 12 — a 2X to a medium,” she said. “That is almost more important than saying I lost all this weight. I can visually see (it by) looking at an old t-shirt.”
2. Celebrate non-scale victories.
When Lester was losing weight, she felt frustrated when the number on the scale wasn’t getting smaller.
“The scale was almost my enemy,” she said. “If … I didn’t like what it said, I was going on a downward spiral.”
That’s when she realized she had to focus on how she felt or how her clothes felt as a measure of success.
“These pants were a little snug but now I don’t have to unbutton them. That is what I look for,” she said.
3. Set reasonable goals.
While Lester knew she needed to lose more than 35 pounds, she was overwhelmed by shedding large amounts of weight. That is why she kept her goals reasonable. After she lost 35 pounds, she focused on losing 50 pounds. Then 75 pounds. This kept her motivated.
“Don’t set a big huge goal that you may not reach right away,” she said. “Set little goals. Make a goal just to walk for 30 minutes every day. Make a goal to cut back on something you eat a lot.”
4. Do what feels right for you.
Lester knows a lot of people who are successful with low-carb diets. That doesn't work for her so she skipped it. Over the years, she learned that working out in the morning, running or walking three or four miles, keeps her energy up for the rest of the day.
"If I wait until the afternoon, I tend to skip workouts," she explained.
She believes she's so successful because she does what feels right for her instead of following the pack or seeking out another trend.
"Find what works for you. Not every diet, or lifestyle, works for everyone," Lester said.