Joey Morganelli was 13 years old when he lost his mother to cancer. Three years later, he lost his father to a heart attack.

He turned to food to cope with the terrible losses and developed a food addiction. At his heaviest, Morganelli weighed almost 400 pounds. But declining mental and physical health made him realize things had to change.

Morganelli’s unhealthy relationship with food began as a child. He was an active kid until he suffered a broken wrist, when he was pushed off a slide. This led to him becoming sedentary, taking a liking to gaming. He would play anywhere from 6 to 14 hours a day, and soon began eating out of boredom.

Looking back on an impactful interaction

In high-school, one of his professors took him aside to express his concern over his health. He suggested that Morganelli watch Fat, Sick and Nearly Dead, a documentary on Netflix. Morganelli followed through with the recommendation — he now recognizes the impact it had on him at the time.

Morganelli tried all the tricks in the book to get into shape. He tried a juice cleanse, a fitness app, and began to learn about cooking and nutrition. Soon enough, the weight started melting away. But his fight wasn’t over yet.

The turning point

In the span of two years, the 23-year-old fluctuated between 396 to 325 pounds before he suffered a panic attack while driving to a friend’s house. The scary experience made him realize things had to change. I almost passed out at the wheel and ended up calling 911,” said Morganelli.

When doctors confirmed that it was in fact a panic attack, he put the pieces together and realized he’d been suppressing unresolved, negative emotions most of his life.

Everything I pushed down so intensely and ignored for so long finally boiled over,” he said. At this point, both his mental and physical health had taken a hit and he was on a slippery slope.

“I had severe [acid reflux] that gave me horrible heartburn, which caused tightness in my chest, which caused me to think I was having a heart attack and caused me to panic,” said Morganelli. “But those panic attacks are what taught me to take a good look at myself in the mirror.”

Today, he follows a vegan diet and has lost 150 pounds. “It’s hard losing weight when you’re lost,” he said. But now, he’s grateful for what his experiences have taught him.

Change starts from within

For anyone facing adversity, he has the following advice:

  1. “Always have the goal you have most control over in the forefront, but not necessarily the easiest,” he said. “Focus on that.”
  2. “Do not ignore your emotions. Do not ignore your anger, your fear, your anxiety, and your excitement. Let yourself experience them to the fullest to be able to know the cause and how to handle them if need be, he continued. “Allow yourself to be scared, for that’s the only way to know how to find a solution.”
  3. Cook for yourself. “The hardest thing to do is cut fast and convenient foods,” he said. “I promise, it’s easy.
  4. Don’t be afraid to fail. Don’t allow yourself to spiral into holes when you disappoint yourself: you are not the person you were yesterday. If you don’t eat well, at least feel good that you did well at work that day. Become attuned with your feelings rather than your coping mechanisms.”