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At age 23, Malarie Burgess couldn't fit into restaurant booths, she had to buy clothes online, and she endured stares and comments from strangers, particularly children. The year was 2010, and she weighed 350 pounds.

"I had kind of fooled myself into thinking I was OK," recalled Burgess, who grew up in Westminster. But then a family friend sat her down and urged her to change. "She said she was worried about my health," Burgess said of the friend. "Initially, I was very offended."

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But Burgess couldn't get the warning out of her head, and within a week, she vowed to change.

By 2012, she had shed more than half her body weight. Burgess is now a trim and fit 170 pounds on a leggy 5-foot-10-inch frame. She's happy with her body-fat ratio of 21 percent, though she wouldn't mind bringing it down another percentage point or two.

She lost the pounds the way many experts recommend: by simply taking in fewer calories and exercising more, without surgery, pills or gimmicks. And she has maintained her smaller size for more than two years.

In July, Burgess, now 27, was featured in a segment on the "Today" show, a "surreal" experience she said. NBC paid for her train ticket to New York and hotel, and polished her look with professional hair and makeup.

"Knowing it's a show that millions of people tune in to and knowing they'd hear my story was both awesome and unbelievable — I am not used to feeling so important," she said. "I didn't spend much time with [hosts Kathie Lee Gifford or Hoda Kotb]. They are busy ladies, and I only saw them while the segment was live. As for Joy Bauer, she is just a doll. Very nice and genuinely interested in what I had to say. Her personality is twice her size."

Burgess plans to share her hard-earned wisdom with others. She's currently a junior at McDaniel College majoring in exercise science. After she graduates, she might become a nutritionist, she said.

Steve McCole is one of her professors, as well as department chair for exercise science and physical education, which trains students for health-related careers. "What she's been able to do is remarkable," he said. "She will be an inspiration to people as she works in the field. She'll be able to say, 'Yes, you can do this.'"

He added: "She used a very sound philosophy: Eat less, exercise more. It's helped her be very successful."

After graduating from Westminster High School in 2004, Burgess worked in local preschools until moving to New York in 2009 with her then-boyfriend. While there, she started a business selling hand-embroidered crafts online and at shows.

Once she decided to lose weight, she never looked back.

"She was born determined," says her mother, Tracey Johnson. "When she took on wanting to be healthy and losing weight and all that, I had no thoughts she would not succeed."

In a fit of determination, Burgess and her boyfriend went through all the food in their apartment, tossing "any beverages that had calories" and any snacks that were not fruits or vegetables. The same day, they purchased a stationary bicycle and Wii Fit Plus, a Nintendo product that guides users through exercise. (The ex-boyfriend lost about 80 pounds, Burgess said.)

"I tried not to think about how much I actually had to lose," Burgess said. She weighed herself just once a month, to avoid worries about day-to-day fluctuations. That first month, she lost 15 pounds. Subsequent months saw losses of eight to 10 pounds each.

Burgess tracked calories with the MyFitnessPal app. She found she had been consuming more than 4,500 calories a day, with a large percentage coming from juices and sodas. She trimmed her intake to between 1,500 and 1,800 calories a day. "For probably two to three weeks, I definitely felt hungry," she said, "but eventually it stopped."

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After about six months, she began running. Then she added weight lifting. Muscles emerged and she became stronger. These days, Burgess, who lives in Hanover, Pa., exercises every day and tracks what she eats. Breakfast might be homemade high-protein pancakes, lunch could be hard-boiled eggs and fruit, and dinner could be a protein like chicken or steak, with rice or quinoa and lots of vegetables. She eats ice cream and cookies on occasion.

"I don't think any food is off limits as long as you moderate," she said.

In May, Burgess underwent surgery known as a lower body lift, which removed 10 pounds of excess skin. The procedure, suitable only for people who have lost significant amounts of weight, was similar to a tummy tuck, but the incision went around her entire body, instead of hip to hip, and removed skin on her hips, belly and back. Recovery took about six weeks, and the scar is permanent. But Burgess said she's glad she did it.

She's been buying new clothes, mostly in sizes 8 and 10. And when she looks through racks of jeans, dresses and tops, "I still have those feelings that the clothes won't fit," she said. "But they do."

Although Burgess was large from an early age, her brother, Michael, never struggled with his weight, and the entire family was fairly athletic. Her parents served the kids comfort food like spaghetti and meatballs, and juice and soda often accompanied meals. Cookies were a popular dessert.

Burgess said she has no memory of learning about "sometime foods and all-the-time foods."

Burgess was overweight from first grade on, said her mom, even though she rode her bicycle and played softball and basketball. The weight accumulated more quickly in high school, after she dropped organized sports. Yet she performed in school plays during high school. "She always seemed to handle her emotions pretty well," said Johnson. "Even though she was a large girl, she still seemed like she had a good amount of confidence."

Johnson, who is now assistant to the athletic director at McDaniel, has always been proud of her daughter, she said, but "watching her grow through this experience, as a mom, it's been wonderful. You always want to see your kids succeed. For me, the thing I love about this the most is, not only did she get herself healthy, she looks great and all of that stuff, but she chose to come back to Maryland to study exercise science so she can help others. That makes me most proud."

Malarie's weight-loss tips

•Don't drink your calories. Malarie Burgess will have an occasional glass of wine or beer, but never soda or juices, which can add thousands of calories to a day's intake.

•Think of exercise as part of your daily routine, like brushing your teeth. Burgess says it takes 21 days to form a habit, so stick with it.

•Track exercise and eating with an app or journal. "People who are overweight underestimate how much they eat," she says. There have been times she wanted to grab a candy bar but decided against it because she didn't want to open her app.

•Use small plates. Putting ice cream in a mug instead of a bowl makes it seem like more.

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•Don't weigh yourself every day. Once a week is fine, once a month even better.

You can follow Burgess and get more tips at twitter.com/TheMalarie and at sothisfitbitch.tumblr.com.

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