Spreading thick layers of margarine across slices of white bread, Donna Macintyre devoured piece after piece for afternoon tea, enjoying the comfort of filling her hungry young stomach.
The then-eight-year-old had suffered yet another rough day at school, listening to taunts from other students about her weight, which was ballooning because of her fixation with food.
"Growing up, I knew nothing about food and ate a lot, which started when I moved primary schools and was bullied for being the new kid," explains Donna, now 40.
"I loved baking and made lots of cakes with sugary icing. No-one told me it was unhealthy because I don't think we were so enlightened about the disastrous impact of sugar and dairy back then."
For the Aucklander, her parents' kitchen was a confusing balance between solace and compulsion, where she ate away feelings of sadness that followed her right through to adulthood.
At her heaviest, the then-corporate administration manager weighed over 130kg. But after not one but two terrifying heart attacks, she was forced to completely overhaul her life and diet, dropping 16 dress sizes!
"In January 2013, I'd been for a casual 20-minute walk on the treadmill and was taking a shower, soaping up my hair, when I got this enormous feeling of compression on my chest," she tells.
"I couldn't get rid of it. It was a huge heaviness that made it hard to breathe and I got weaker really quickly, needing to lie down."
Struggling to get to her bedroom, a dripping-wet Donna lay on her bed for 45 minutes, too weak to call for help from her parents, who she was living with.
By the time her mum came into her room, asking if she wanted dinner, Donna's jaw was locked up and she had no strength in her arms.
She recalls, "I said I was really sick, so Mum called in my brother, who'd just done a first-aid course. He thought it was my heart and rang for an ambulance."
At hospital, Donna was told she'd suffered a rare heart attack called a spontaneous coronary artery dissection, which is caused by torn arteries and mostly affects women between 30 and 50.
"They said it is triggered by stress," she tells. "I was so shocked I'd even had one because I was only 34 and it wasn't painful!"
After being released, an exhausted Donna, who was sleeping 16 hours a day, scoured the internet for information about her condition that doctors said couldn't be fixed by pills.
"I learnt I'd have to use food as my medicine, but for a year, I kept eating unhealthily because I was still in denial," she admits.
The first diet she tried drastically restricted her food intake and involved measuring every morsel she put in her mouth.
"Breakfast was low-fat Greek yoghurt and a piece of fruit, lunch was vegetables and a little piece of chicken, and dinner was the same," tells Donna, who got an autoimmune condition in her mouth as a result of the diet.
"Sure, I lost weight, but I felt horrible and had become unhealthily obsessed with weighing my food. It really affected me emotionally."
With more research, she discovered whole food, plant-based diets that are made up of fresh fruits, vegetables, nuts and seeds, plus small doses of animal protein.
She trialled the regime and to Donna's delight, she didn't have to measure and weigh her food any more, and she wasn't starving.
The kilos started dropping off and things began to look up. But 18 months after her heart attack, Donna suffered a shocking second cardiac arrest, inching perilously close to death's door.
"At hospital, I was told in no uncertain terms that I might not survive a third heart attack and that it was down to stress management. I had to do more than lose weight."
Donna decided to quit her demanding job, saying, "I figured I'd either walk out of there or be carried out."
She focused her spare time on studying to become an integrative nutrition coach, absorbing as much information as she could about whole, plant-based foods and fitness.
She stopped eating gluten, dairy and refined sugar, and began exercising five days a week for over an hour at a time, choosing workouts she enjoyed, like bike riding around the city and completing mini marathons on the rowing machine.
Three months ago, Donna launched Akona Health in Auckland's Ponsonby, a business helping other women – particularly in corporate settings – with whole-food weight loss.
Now a slimmer, fitter and much happier version of herself, Donna weighs a healthy 70kg and understands she'll have to manage her weight for the rest of her life to protect her heart.
"I'm very aware of stress management now and what I put in my mouth," she beams. "Yes, you have to put in the work, but it doesn't need to rule your life. It's all about gradual changes."
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