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After graduating from college in 2015, Veronica Castorena was profoundly sad. It was supposed to be a happy time in her life, but at 5 feet 2 inches, she weighed 450 pounds and had been using food to "fill an emotional void."
“I felt so empty,” Castorena, 25, of Chicago, told TODAY. “No one grows up and says, ‘I want to just overeat and get fat.’ There is an emotional element under it.”
Castorena knew it was time to confront her feelings and she started her weight loss simply by counting calories. Even with modest changes, the first few months were extremely difficult.
“It was the hardest thing in the world to break being a binge eater. It was like breaking an addiction,” she said.
Each month eating 1,800 calories a day got easier and she noticed it made a difference. As the pounds dropped off, she added cardio and weight lifting to her routine. These changes worked: In a year and eight months, she shed 118 pounds to weigh 332 pounds.
“I felt great,” she said. “Every week, I was losing weight and getting stronger.”
But she hit a setback. In March 2016, Castorena developed a cough. Soon, that cough made it tough for her to go to the gym or stand for long. She struggled to stay active, but kept counting calories. Despite maintaining her healthy eating habits, she started gaining weight again.
“By fall 2017, my legs were getting really big,” she said. “It was so emotional. I had worked so hard to lose weight.”
She regained the 118 pounds that she lost and worried something else was happening. When she visited the hospital twice, doctors were puzzled by her sudden weight gain.
“The only thing they could say was that I was fat,” she explained.
In March 2018 they checked her heart and discovered something worrisome: Castorena had heart failure on the right side of her heart.
“It was so sad and embarrassing at the same time. I didn’t know what I did to myself,” she said.
Doctors put her on oxygen and several medications. These interventions made a huge difference and she soon returned to the gym.
From March to August 2018, she lost 100 pounds and now weighs 350 pounds. She hopes to lose another 150 pounds by sticking with her healthy routine. Right now, she goes to the gym three times a week and still watches her calorie intake. She doesn’t cut out any foods but she does try to focus on whole grains, vegetables, fruits and lean protein.
“I need balance because otherwise I will be triggered into a mindset. I became obsessed with being restrictive,” she said.
Even though her weight loss has not been easy, Castorena is happy with what she has learned throughout her experience.
“My purpose is to make sure I feel good on the inside,” she said. “I love the way my transformation (and) progress makes me feel now. I feel like I have a purpose in this world, my confidence in myself is improving on the daily, I am doing things I could never do before.”
She’s even hoping that her renewed dedication will help reverse her heart failure.
“Anything is possible,” she said.
Castorena shares tips to help others hoping to lose weight.
1. Have fun!
Castorena really enjoys walking on the treadmill; She prefers it to walking outside. So that’s what she does instead of forcing herself to do an activity because it is trendy or healthy. Pursuing what she likes keeps her engaged.
“If you are going to hate it, you are going to fail,” she said. “If you hate it, it is a very long journey.”
2. It’s not a diet.
Some of the diets sound alluring with their promises of weight loss. But Castorena knew she needed to make a lifestyle change that worked for her. Take low-carb diets, she knows they work for many but she’s miserable without whole-grain pastas and breads. That's why she still includes carbs and that helps her lose weight.
“Take everything with a grain of salt with diets,” she explained. “See what you like and make it sustainable.”
3. Practice self-love.
“Give yourself positive affirmations,” Castorena said. “You may not believe it right now, but you are going to believe that and that makes you more confident … You don’t want to put any negative energy into you.”