Mylitta Butler was the track star of her high school team. At 5 feet 10 inches, she ran across the finish line of her races with a long, lean stride, and no one could ever imagine that one day, her health would ever reach a low point where she could not even run a city block. When the crowd cheered "Go Mylitta" back at those meets, as one of six siblings, she loved the attention focused on her alone. She felt unstoppable.

The end of her four years at high school came quickly with Butler spending most of her time on the track, with her friends, and acing exams. After relocating to Florida she was ready to take on the world and upon graduation she moved out of her parent's home in New York, looking to conquer her next challenge. It wasn't long after she packed up her trophies, clothes, and valuables and moved to Florida where she studied at the University of South Florida.

Florida felt very foreign to the New York native who was used to fast pace and bright lights, but she quickly fell in love with all of its sweet offerings, including its indulgences. Butler said, "I fell in love with the southern comfort food, hence the weight gain." During her four years at USF, she studied hard and focused on her social life, which meant a lot of booze and take-out.

A year and a half prior to graduation, health was a low priority and Butler solely focused on completing her degree and securing a good job. When Butler turned 24 and it was time for her annual check-up at the doctor's office near campus. This visit changed her life forever. In the waiting room for her appointment, she reminisced about how great she used to feel when she crossed the finish line after a race, compared to now, feeling less confident and far less active. Butler stepped on the scale so the nurse could weigh her and she was stunned to see the ticker pass 300 pounds. She knew she had high blood pressure and high cholesterol from a previous check-up, but she wasn't prepared for what the doctor was about to say.

Butler's Doctor Said it Was Time to Make a Change

"I was diagnosed with borderline type two diabetes," said Butler. She recalled her teary-eyed reaction when her doctor said, "You can only be one of the two O's: You can either be obese or you could be old, but you can't be both."

Butler remembered those words years later as clear as day. In fact, she remembers most of the details about that day because not only was it the beginning of her life change but because she found out that her BMI was 42, which was her age in reverse.

Also, her doctor made mention of the word 'future.' Just starting out on her career, she thought her future was under control. But the doctor told her: "You need to really take a good look at your life and decide if this is the future you want for yourself because you're actually a few steps closer to the grave than you need to be at this young age."

That night after she left the worst check-up of her life, Butler broke down. "I was dealing with a lot. I was working full-time, I was a full-time student, and there were a lot of stressful things going on in my family," she said. During her drive home, she took the backroads to the nearest McDonald's for her usual quick fix in stressful situations, a Big Mac combo, large fries, and a soda.

She drove back to her apartment near campus and remembers taking a hot shower and crying uncontrollably. When it was time to go to sleep, Butler laid awake all night, restlessly thinking about all of the worst-case scenarios, but as she tossed and turned, a light at the end of the tunnel appeared.

Butler grabbed her bedside journal and wrote about her feelings, honestly. She couldn't stop thinking about her doctor's words, so she decided to write something positive to escape the negative ruminations. Butler wrote a love letter to herself: "Even at 304 pounds, you're still worth fighting for. You're going to start taking steps today, so tomorrow when I wake up, I'm going to start exercising, I'm going to change how I'm going to eat." The next day, running on little sleep, Butler wrote her health goals in the same journal, so that she would have something to check every day to help her stay on track.

Here's What She Did to Get Healthy

  • Wrote herself a love letter: "I'm more than enough"
  • Danced in her living room
  • Focused on nutrient-dense foods instead of restricting calories
  • Gave up red meat the first month, then dairy, and eventually seafood
  • Added plant-based foods to her diet when she took out dairy and meat
  • Ate intuitively: Listened to what her body needed
  • Used a combination of multiple diets to lose weight fast

Her Weight Loss Journey Began When She Prioritized Herself

Fifteen months later, when she got weighed at her next doctor visit, Butler had lost 160 pounds. Her doctor asked her what happened and she reported that she had discovered the power of nutrition and focusing on eating more nutrient-dense foods that contained fewer calories than the foods she ate before. Butler went from 304 pounds to 143 pounds just by focusing on nutritional value, eating plant-based, and moving her body. Her favorite way to burn off stress and calories: Dancing in the mirror in her living room.

We spoke to Butler about her weight loss journey and asked for the update now that she has managed to keep the weight off, well into her 40s. Butler shared her secret to losing weight and noted to anyone on their own journey, that it "won't happen overnight." She provides helpful advice for anyone who's looking to get healthier in a new book: Slim Down, Level Up: Discover Weight Loss Tips From a Healthy Thick Chick. In it, she explains how others can achieve their goals regardless of where they start.

The Beet: When did you decide to change your habits?

Mylitta Butler: When I completely broke down in the shower, it woke me up. It was almost like how people say they hit the wall. You get knocked down and come out swinging. When I got out of the shower that night, that was the same day I left the doctor's office and I kind of had that whole realization. I knew I had high blood pressure, I knew I had high cholesterol, but that was the first time I heard that I was pre-diabetic and that I could have diabetes. I knew family members and friends who had it and suffered from it and either lost a limb or took tons of medication. I said to myself, "You really need to do something about this." But that night I went to get my fast food fix first and went home to process everything.

I went from 304 pounds down to 143 pounds in a little less than 15 months. That changed everything––that was my moment. That's when I woke up and started to fight.

The Beet: How did you lose all the weight?

Mylitta Butler: So the first thing I did was I knew I needed to get control of my eating. I always liked to journal, so I journaled everything. I knew I needed to write down what I was eating. When I did that, I realized why I was over 300 pounds. For the first week, I said, ‘I'm going to write down what I'm eating so I can get control over the eating.’ I knew that was key. I knew I needed to get control of eating, but in my mind, I'm like, ‘oh, I don't really eat that much.’ I kind of eat this, kind of eat that.

When I wrote it out, I was taking in 7,000 to 8,000 calories a day and almost 450 grams of fat. And when I saw it in black and white—I said "this is where I'm going wrong." This is what I need to fix. So when I did that, I started reducing my caloric intake. I cut out sodas and juices, and then I knew I needed to get moving, but I was embarrassed to go to the gym at 304 pounds. So instead I danced in my living room. I said, "five days a week, I'm going to commit to 30 minutes of dancing in my living room, nonstop, to my favorite music."

Between dancing and reducing my calories, I lost 32 pounds in the first two months. That was huge, so I knew I was on the right path. I knew that I needed to continue doing what I was doing. Prior to that I kind of stopped and started and stopped and started, like a yo-yo diet. But it was the first time, I really felt in control of what I was doing. That's when I started researching other foods as well––what was best for me to eat versus just reducing my calories.

The Beet: When did you discover the healthiest way of eating?

Mylitta Butler: I started to research nutrition when I probably was at about the 40-pound down mark. Then, I kept losing, but I also kept hitting plateaus. I kept thinking, ‘okay, my calories are here, but maybe I need to start incorporating other foods from other diets.’ I always was curious about vegetarian diets. I thought people who were vegetarian seem to be thin or healthier––they're in great shape. So, I thought, let me look into a vegetarian diet. I had a friend who at the time was kind of experimenting with being a vegetarian as well. She took me to one of her favorite little vegetarian places. Back then, there wasn't a lot like there is now. There are so so many options now, but back in the late nineties, there weren't.

And so she took me to one of her places and I ordered a vegetarian dish and loved it. I thought, wait a minute, if I can make vegetables and veggie products taste like meat products, then it's fewer calories, less fat, and is healthier for me. I thought that's a no-brainer.

That made me really want to start understanding––not just vegetarianism––but the different stages. That's when I learned that there are different vegetarians. It's not just one type of vegetarian, that there are actually four different kinds and then ultimately there's vegan. I slowly started to take things out of my diet based on my understanding of the health benefits of a vegan diet. So I knew that I would reduce my heart disease risk if I were more plant-based, I knew that I would reduce my cholesterol if I was more plant-based.

And so the first thing I did was cut out red meat. I told myself, "I'm not going to have red meat." The one thing I made sure of is that I did my research. I realized that I could have deficiencies if I was going to take certain food out of my diet.

So every time I took out a food group, I made sure I was adding back in what I was taking out in other sources. When I took out red meat, I knew I needed to add protein. I was making sure that I was like having more beans and I was looking into soy products and things like that. After the red meat, I removed eating chicken, and then I took out seafood. Lastly, I eliminated dairy to ultimately arrived at becoming a vegan.

The Beet: How did you feel when you gave up meat and dairy?

Mylitta Butler: My skin was amazing. My hair was amazing. My nails. My energy levels. I just felt incredible and I didn't miss the meat. People always asked, "didn't you miss meat?" The only thing I really missed would have been seafood because I was a seafood lover prior, but like red meat––I didn't even think about it. Chicken would gross me out even to see it, especially raw. There were just certain things I was totally against. And I think I would have been more turned off if I realized all the chemicals in the foods I was eating and all the bad things that they were doing to my body and how long it would take my body to process and digest it. After knowing all of that, it completely turned me away.

The Beet: When did you start losing weight on a vegan diet?

Mylitta Butler: By the time I was full-blown vegan, I had lost about 70 pounds from reducing my calories and dancing. But, when I went vegan I lost an additional 90 pounds in 6 months. That was huge, basically, that was more than I had previously lost when I was still eating meat but in less time. There was a process, as I said, I was eliminating meat and dairy in stages.  I was dropping maybe about three to four pounds max a week. I was also working out five days a week, sometimes six. I was very cognitive of my caloric intake, only drinking water, no sodas, no juices. I was making sure that I properly put back in nutrients when I was taking something out. I just kept reincorporating new dishes, experimenting, learning new things. I said: If I'm not going to have a chicken dish, what can I find that's a plant-based product, in a similar direction, and something I could add spice to and feel just as full without all the calories and fats.

I even got down to 143 pounds. I was so excited about my weight loss results, and I think that's what really made me feel eating vegan is it. I was excited how I felt I was sleeping better. I felt better overall.

I thought everyone around me would be happy about my new lifestyle change. However, then the next thing you know, other people felt as though I was saying that their decision to continue to eat meat was something bad. And it was almost like I had to justify why I chose to eat this way. They would almost get offended. Like, ‘Oh, you don't eat meat, well, there's nothing wrong with meat and you need meat.’ And they would try to argue with about all the great reasons why we're supposed to eat meat. And then when I say ‘well, and I'm not saying that you shouldn't, I'm not telling you what to put in your body. I'm telling you from my body, this works.’ It feels amazing. I feel wonderful, but it just really blew my mind initially how many people kept saying like, okay, so you're losing weight, but you know, it can't just be because  you're vegan.

I knew that I was on the right track and just the fact that I was eating more and losing weight made sense. When you eat plant-based products, they're more nutrient-dense and not as calorie-dense. So I was able to eat big portions of veggies, tofu, and soy because I was taking in fewer calories. So I was feeling full, but I was eating more and I was like, this is amazing. I was actually eating more than what I'm receiving before, but I'm losing more weight.

The Beet: Did you continue eating plant-based in college?

Mylitta Butler: I started the vegan transformation going into my senior year of college. So when I graduated, I walked across the stage and felt super proud that I was down 161 pounds. I felt amazing and unstoppable. And so once I graduated, I kept up with my healthy lifestyle. I mean completely strong for another six years, I was full vegan. I was so into it, but I have to say this because I think sometimes when we set out to lose weight, we can go a little too far. We can have this weight loss dream destination in our minds of how much we're going to lose. And sometimes we can get off at an exit that may not be healthy for us to stay. For me, I lost 161 pounds, and that it was too thin. I was too skinny. I looked like a bobblehead to be honest.

And so I purposefully––and most people won't do this––but I purposefully gained back 30 pounds. That's where I noticed where my body felt the best. So it was hard to gain back 30 pounds because my body had gotten so used to everything. My metabolism was revved up on a type of eating style. I had to increase my protein because I wanted to build back on muscle, you know? I didn't want to just gain fat back. Then I realized at 170 I felt the best. I stayed between like one 170 ish and I give myself a 10-pound cushion. That’s another thing––I think sometimes we freak out if the scale's not at a certain number and we think, well, we're not calculating hormones, age, stage, lifestyle, all kinds of different things are going on in our bodies.

So I stay between like 173 ish to 183 ish pounds max. That's where I feel the healthiest, that's where I've run full marathons. That's where I feel unstoppable. But the crazy part is based on my height and the BMI chart, I'm classified as overweight even at that size. So this is when I tell people: Don't let the BMI trick you into telling you what healthy is supposed to look and feel like, because you have to listen to your body.

At 143 pounds, even though on paper, I was healthy, I didn’t feel great. My BMI was great, I was no longer off the charts, classified as third-degree obese––I was considered healthy. It wasn't until I truly started to listen to my body did I start to feel healthy when I got in around the 170's. That's where I felt amazing.

The Beet: How would you describe your diet right now?

Mylitta Butler: Right now I'm not a full-time vegan. I'm more of a flexitarian. So I do incorporate a lot of meatless meals into my routine. And actually, I have my little saying, I always say ‘my meatless dinner makes me thinner.’ And I always say that anytime I encourage people to eat more vegan. I say listen, "if you want to lose weight, have a meatless dinner." I have a big social media following so I've helped two of my weight loss groups go meatless for March. I've actually encouraged them to go meatless four to five days a week to see their scale move, to see their skin improve, and to see how they feel.
I find that most people ask, where do I start? What do I buy at the grocery store? What do I look for? How do I cook meat alternatives? So, I focus on giving them little tips, which I had to learn. One thing I learned quickly when I started experimenting and––I come from a family of color where meat is served at every meal, sometimes two, three meals––to tell my family I'm not going to eat meat…they looked at me like I'm strange like I must be going through a phase.

If I'm talking with a friend or family member and I'm trying to persuade them––I'm not going to say convince, but I want to persuade them to eat more plant-based––I say, listen, don't give up on the first plant-based burger. I'm sure you've had a bad piece of chicken before, but it didn't stop you from eating chicken again. Or you've had a bad piece of steak before, or ate at a certain restaurant when something didn't taste good, but it tasted better at another restaurant--it's all the same. I say: ‘just give it another try.’

When I first went plant-based, I also realized vegetables don't have the same flavors as animal fats. So then I realized I had to really become familiar with herbs and spices. I really had to like jazz up my meals and add a lot of fresh vegetables and fruits and things like that. Over time I got really good at making vegetarian or vegan meals. That was fun.

The Beet: How long did you stay on that vegan diet?

Mylitta Butler: For about six years. I'm 45 years old now. That was until I met my husband and little by little, I began to eat meat. It was almost like a trade-off. So I had to persuade him to start trying more vegetarian plant-based items. And then he was like, well, when are you going to eat meat again? And I was like, I'm not. And so it was almost too hard because I tried for a while to just cook him meals and cook mine separately. After a while when I started to eat meat, and I did it very, very slowly because I never really was a big red meat eater. I wasn't super excited about chicken either. Also, I would mess with dairy sometimes.
Initially, I wasn't sure how that would go. So, I just slowly started to eat meat again, but I go through phases where I just won't eat it at all, for six months or nine months a year. Then every now and again, I may just have some, but it really just depends on what's going on. Whether it be what's going on with my husband, with my son––because I'm a mom now. So that's another thing, I have to try to get my son into eating vegan. I will say this because thankfully my sister and her husband became vegans and they're still vegans now. And my niece and nephew were born and bred vegans and they're 12 and 19 years old now. So they've been doing that for their entire life. So when my son spends time with them he eats vegan and they make it taste great. So nine times out of 10, he doesn't even know what he's eating.

The Beet: Tell me about your book.

Mylitta Butler: My book is called Slim Down, Level Up: Discover Weight Loss Tips From a Healthy Thick Chick. I'm saying that we don't have to be a size two to be happy and healthy, that we can learn to love our curves at any size, even while losing weight. That's the key to losing weight: it’s embracing your current size, where you are on your journey, so you can get to where you want to be. My niche in my book is that I explain in order to lose large amounts of weight, you have to use a combination of multiple diets. I don't just focus on a low-calorie diet.  I believe in the three formulas, which I explain in my book.

In my book, I provide a six-week program with countless vegan examples, which I'm so proud of and I actually feature you guys' website on my blog. I have an entire section about how to go vegan the smart way and I explain how to make the switch in different stages. I explained the different levels of vegetarianism, and I have a vegetarian and vegan grocery list. I have the restaurants where they can eat vegan and what items they can get from which restaurant, and how to eat out fast food and still lose weight. I explain the different ways to incorporate more vegetables into one's diet, whether or not one doesn't want to go full vegan. I like to provide as many options as I can to cater to everyone's dietary needs.

The Beet: How do you feel right now?

Mylitta Butler: So I'm at 178 pounds right now. Like I said, I stay between 173 to183 pounds. All these years I've maintained that weight. And the only way I've maintained is because of the fact that I incorporate multiple diets. So for instance, I'll do meatless meals. I do meatless dinners or I'll just go meatless altogether. I incorporate intermittent fasting or I'll do spontaneous meal skipping or I'll have my heavier meal in the first part of the day and then have something lighter in the evening. I've learned that combination dieting works best because our bodies have this wonderful thing called homeostasis where it gets used to what we're doing and it makes the adjustment. So I learned as I was losing and I kept hitting those plateaus that I had to make all changes, but they made a huge difference, like tricking my body to continue to lose more weight.

I was also doing the same thing when I was vegan. I would do intermittent fasting and have a liquid breakfast or liquid dinner sometimes all with a plant-based approach. And that was my superpower. I really learned how to maximize my weight loss by incorporating those different diets. And I don't even like to use the word diet, I say eating styles,  incorporating those different eating styles together, took my weight loss and my health to the next level. That's why I say ‘Slim Down, Level Up.’ It's taking weight loss to the next level, it's taking self-love to the next level I explain how we can heal ourselves with the foods that we eat.

The Beet: What advice would you give to someone who is trying to lose weight of diet or eating style?

Mylitta Butler: I would tell to be open to different eating styles, not just one diet. That’s the old philosophy, the new philosophy is that the combination dieting is going to be king. What's really going to help people is when they learn to incorporate meatless meals into their dinners. I would really advise people to add more plant-based foods into their diet and to be aware of what they're eating, most people don't even know what they're eating. I'm the perfect example. I thought what I was eating at 300 pounds was fine and that the ingredients were actually good for me. I also think it's important to be open to trying new foods and don't get discouraged when you try something for the first time and you don't like the taste.

For instance, a perfect example in the book, because a lot of people, when I say, let's say they're going to switch to vegan, they're a little intimidated because they don't know how to cook. They're like I don't even know where to begin to be a vegan or vegetarian. Nowadays super easy to be vegan and vegetarian. I list some of the food delivery services that they have out there, the meal kits that you can order like you could go online, like to and be able to let them do the cooking for you until you get more familiar with like making vegan products. I'm like you could go on there and order your dinner and take the stress out from needing to grocery shop and prep dinner. The portion size is already done for you also, which is helpful when you are losing and maintaining weight.

The Beet: Do you have a mantra?

Mylitta Butler: My mantra is live today for tomorrow we die. And I learned that from a really good friend. I think a lot of times we walk around as though we're going to live forever. When in reality we're all on borrowed time. And I finally realized after watching my friend get diagnosed with stage four cancer to really start living life. And before she had cancer, she was doing great. She was here, there, everywhere, but she really wasn't living. And she said: "You know what, I realized that I need to live today, we can plan for tomorrow, but one day we're not going to wake up, we need to get busy living before we die." So that stuck with me. And I've been living my life to the fullest ever since.

I'm grateful for my health and how I feel right now, and I try to just be the best person I can be. Every single day when I wake up, regardless of what's going on, I get up and get dressed up because I know the days waiting on me. Even on zoom calls, I look my best. Some people are like, Let me just not turn my camera on. But I'm like, listen, this could be our last day on earth when you want to be fabulous. When you want something so badly you have your best foot forward for that day to show the world your light. If this is my last day, I'm going all out, let the wheels go and I want to feel good about it. And so that's what I've been thinking in the back of my mind for a few years and I could just hear her words: " You are unstoppable, resilient. And need to really live, don't just exist but live."

The Beet: Is there anything else you would like to add?

Mylitta Butler: Yes, I'll say this: I wish there were more ways in the media to promote plant-based health. The reason I say that is because I know world-wide heart disease is the #1 killer of people. Over 18 million people every single year are dying from heart disease and when the foods that we could eat and incorporate into our diet––that are right here––could heal us and reduce that statistic, why isn't it promoted more? It breaks my heart. And I’m not going to wait on the food industry to give us better options—they’re making their combos bigger and cheaper. It’s just crazy. But I wish plant-based eating was promoted more. Restaurants have gotten better, but it’s not the bulk of the menu. I just wish there were more options. I think people would really get into it and say ‘I could do this.’ But, let’s be honest, most people are busy and just don’t have time to put in the extra work that it takes to eat plant-based. But I think if it were more convenient, more people would jump on board a lot quicker than they would right now.

For me personally, I used to live to eat, instead of eating to live back when I was 300 pounds. But when I made the shift, when I was ready to take control, I had to learn that when I went out with co-workers, or go to family reunions, birthdays, weddings—how am I going to live my life this way and still not sabotage the things I like to do. I remember going to McDonald's and I ordered a burger with no meat, just lettuce, tomatoes, mustard. I had to find out which grocery stores I could go to or if I was going to someone’s house, I would bring my own food. It was a small change, but I was committed to the shift. But it took a lot of planning. But then again, successful people plan.

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