Summit County mother loses 186 pounds in 3 years
January 12, 2015
For most of her life, Michelle Pierce rarely ventured into the fresh produce section at the grocery store.
She couldn't be bothered, really. The 33-year-old Midwest native and Summit County resident of six years was drawn to the sweeter things in life: cookies, cupcakes, fast food, Coca-Cola, packaged anything and everything.
It didn't help that she's always been something of a magician in the kitchen: Her signature chocolate chip cookies are like sugary catnip at local bake sales.
But something in Pierce's brain clicked nearly four years ago when her son was born. At the time, her battle with processed foods and dietary quick fixes had reached an all-time low. She stood 5 feet, 5 inches and weighed roughly 360 pounds — nearly double what she weighed in elementary school, when she was constantly bullied. She had moved to the Colorado High Country two years prior for a job, but between the elevation and a touch of culture shock, she felt isolated from the healthy, active folks she saw on the bike paths and ski slopes.
“You don’t just diet
— it’s a lifestyle, and if you think of it as something that will end, it will end. I went into this knowing it would completely change my life.”
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"I felt like an outcast when I first moved here," Pierce says. "When I first moved up to the mountains — and even Colorado — I felt like I was the only fat girl, the only heavier girl around. It's not like Missouri where you see lots of heavyweight people."
Today, nearly three years later, Pierce is a bona fide pro when it comes to produce. While chatting over a bowl of green chili at Dillon Dam Brewery — it's where her husband works — Pierce starts rattling off the fruits and veggies that replaced the McDonald's dollar menu: zucchini, broccoli and spaghetti squash, one of her favorite ingredients, no matter the season or mood.
"I'm still a big foodie," says Pierce, who's a manager at Le Creuset in Silverthorne, along with several other part-time gigs across the town. "I love food. I cook with it and talk about it all day long at work. It's just a matter of appreciating everything about food, like the broccoli instead of the cheese sauce it's covered in."
Yet rummaging through a produce bin isn't the only place Pierce now feels at home. In late December, "People" magazine — the bread and butter of checkout lanes and grocery store book aisles — ran an online article about her lifelong struggle with weight. Last summer, nearly 70 Le Creuset stores partnered with the nonprofit organization Share Our Strength to battle youth hunger through, of course, a round of bake sales.
Pierce sold $500 at the local sale — easily $100 more than her closest competitor — and found support through the nonprofit, which helps in-need families across the U.S. When paired with her weight-loss story, the sale was enough to draw the magazine's attention for its year-end series of inspiring, true-to-life tales.
Pierce blushes momentarily when asked about the "People" feature, but the color fades quickly. She's far from bashful, and although she never expected to be featured in a super-market mag — let alone in an article on weight loss — it's yet another incentive to stay away from the burgers and fries and milkshakes.
"When I think of my success, I think of the 13-year-old Michelle," Pierce says between sips of soup. "I've always been a big girl, and it's so exciting to think that I've done this. I just thought I was going to be fat the rest of my life and die of a heart attack."
New family, new lifestyle
Pierce doesn't shy away from questions about her childhood. Her mom was a single parent who worked long, seemingly endless days at a neighborhood restaurant. Still, food wasn't always easy to come by.
"I grew up a hungry kid," Pierce remembers. "Even though we were poor, my mother was against getting help and against asking for help. She was a very proud woman — single mom in the '80s just had a bad stigma to it. There were times when mom could only feed us with what she brought back from work."
While mom was working, Pierce and her siblings often had to plan mealtime. But those meals were far from square. She rarely cooked at home, opting instead for the local drive-through or a school vending machine. She never learned how to craft full meals or balance nutrition and flavor, but she knew something was wrong with her diet, even as a young child.
"I always wanted to be healthy," Pierce says. "It's been a dream of mine, but I just had no idea how to get there. Growing up in the Midwest, there's fast food on every corner. Everything is naughty — you can have a full meal with nothing but processed foods."
And then came the bullying. Kids were ruthless — "I was bullied mercilessly," she says — but even adults could be insensitive and cruel. In fourth grade, when she weighed 199 pounds, her teacher pulled her aside and asked a relatively innocent question: "Don't you think you're getting a little big?" In shock, Pierce went home to indulge.
A CHANGE COMES
As she tells the story today, Pierce still seems to wrestle with the long, hard years between school in Missouri and her new life in Colorado. There were diets, from Weight Watchers to home exercise videos, but nothing stuck for long enough to make a difference.
Until her son was born. For Pierce, thinking ahead to the little things she would miss — crawling through tubes in the playground, helping her son tie his shoes — was the final push she needed to get healthy.
Between March 2012 and 2013, Pierce constantly struggled to lose weight and keep it off. Like many, she got off to a quick start, but she soon hit a plateau. That's when she started taking fitness classes at the Silverthorne Recreation Center, where she can be found at least five or six times per week, and began exploring her new favorite hangout: the produce aisle.
It was a matter of constantly retraining her body and taste buds to accept a new, difficult, yet ultimately liberating lifestyle. To explain, she uses a fruit metaphor.
"Artificial blueberries will always taste different than real blueberries," Pierce says. "Over the past two years, I've been training myself to not crave the processed flavor. I want to eat a blueberry for the actual flavor, not what the artificial flavor tells you it should taste like."
After her feature in "People," Pierce's friends and family were elated, but dozens of strangers online bashed her 1,300-calorie-per-day diet, saying it's unhealthy. It's the faceless Greek chorus of social media, and while she can't avoid reading the nastier comments, outlets like her Facebook page and Pinterest recipe collections have become must-have support systems over the last three years. Through a steady stream of online posts, she's even managed to encourage others — including a few strangers — to follow her lead.
"I always check in (on Facebook), I always share what I'm doing, and it really has had an impact on my friends and family," says Pierce, who wants to do a "Biggest Loser"–style program with her friend if she moves to Colorado from Oklahoma. "They tell me it's inspiring."
And the battle isn't over yet. Pierce says she never wants to be rail thin — "My husband wouldn't even like that," she laughs — but she's still a few pounds away from her ultimate goal: 160 pounds, the lightest she's been since elementary school.
"It's said all the time: 'Rome wasn't built in a day,'" Pierce says as she finishes her soup with a look of total satisfaction. "It's the same with taking on a healthy lifestyle. You don't just diet — it's a lifestyle, and if you think of it as something that will end, it will end. I went into this knowing it would completely change my life."