(CNN) -- A picture is worth a thousand words -- but for Christie Morgan, those words weren't worth remembering.
When she was forced to pose for photos at her niece's Sweet 16 party in 2008, she realized just how overweight she really was. If she didn't make a drastic change, she knew she wouldn't live to see future family milestones.
At the time, she weighed in at 403 pounds.
Because of her body size, she struggled throughout everyday life. She couldn't walk more than a few steps in her own home, get out of a car or fit in airplane seats.
"I swear, every beat of my heart hurt," Morgan says. "Any moment could be my last, and I felt one morning I simply would not wake up."
Morgan grew up in a large family where every occasion centered around food. Every birthday, anniversary, graduation or accomplishment was an excuse to consume authentic Italian food.
She wanted to be a role model for her daughter, Brielle, now 18, but says it was difficult enforcing a healthy diet when she wasn't following one herself. When Brielle had parent-teacher days at school, Morgan refused to attend because she didn't want to embarrass her daughter by being "the fat mom."
"When you are that large and that miserable in your body, you feel like you're a failure to your children, your parents and society," Morgan says.
Doctors told her the only way to lose enough weight to be at a healthy BMI was through gastric bypass surgery.
Her friends constantly told her she wouldn't be successful if she didn't get professional help.
Morgan says she considered both, but ultimately she wanted to shed the pounds on her own naturally.
"I felt just from watching surgery-goers, their body changed, but they weren't all that healthy," Morgan says. "They could continue to eat the junk, just not as much."
In the past, she had tried almost every single diet fad known.
"Either I failed them, or they failed me, I just don't know," Morgan says.
So she decided to look at weight loss as a challenge to her doctors and herself, not as punishment. Days after seeing pictures from the birthday party, Morgan sat down and formed an eating plan.
She took elements of other diets and her knowledge from nutrition classes she took in college and created her own diet plan. Lean meats and fish, fresh fruits and vegetables, KIND bars and unlimited water are essentials during the day.
Morgan says she didn't want to feel deprived as she did in other diets -- she wanted a way to eat cleaner and feel full at the same time.
"I love cooking and entertaining," Morgan says. "I needed to find a way to cook my favorite foods healthier, not cut them out entirely."
She says exercising was a challenge in the beginning, but starting slow allowed her to keep realistic goals.
"The first day of exercising resulted in me breaking a "Total Gym" machine because I exceeded the weight limit," Morgan says. So she steered clear of the gym to avoid being ridiculed by strangers.
"It's not about investing in supplements, gym memberships, programs or diet plans," she says. "For me it was about investing in myself, my health, my mind and my body."
In two years, Morgan has shed a total of 289 pounds. She now weighs 114 pounds.
She says looking back at pictures, she can see the sadness in her eyes. The smile on her face was a facade to hide from how she truly felt about her body.
"Perfection is knowing that I am the best I can be in every way," she says. "And now I'm no longer an observer of life, but a participant."