Vanessa Etienne is an Emerging Content Writer-Reporter for PEOPLE. Prior to joining in April 2021, she served as a reporter for Men's Health Magazine and BET Digital after freelancing for publications such as The New York Times and Everyday Health. Originally from northern Virginia, Vanessa is a proud Haitian American with a love for R&B music and mental health topics. She graduated from North Carolina State University with a bachelor's in Communication and Public Relations before earning her master's degree in Journalism from the City University of New York.
Liah and Lauryn Chavez grew up doing school sports and hitting the gym often, but their weight never reflected the work they thought they were putting in. The 25-year-old twin sisters now know that the problems stemmed from their relationship with food, telling PEOPLE that it was their norm to eat out three or four times a week, especially when family problems arose.
"We had a couple deaths in our family over the past 10 years," Liah says. "We also owned a restaurant in high school so everyone would go to the restaurant and we would just eat and eat and eat not realizing the harm that it was doing to our body."
"We've always been a family that loves eating food and we were always taught never be shy of it," Lauryn adds. "But I guess the sadness, we kind of turned to food and drinking for therapy and that just enhanced it."
Before they knew it, the Houston, Texas-based sisters were both over 250 lbs.
Liah and Lauryn also believe genetics "has never been on our side," sharing that obesity and diabetes runs on both sides of their family.
They eventually realized that their weight was impacting the future they wanted to have. Liah has plans to start a family and was worried her weight could cause issues with fertility and in pregnancy. She also struggled with body dysmorphia and wanted to feel better about herself. Meanwhile, Lauryn wanted to build confidence, feel healthy and look good in her clothes.
"We've always been bigger than a lot of people, and then when you get older it just starts affecting your health," Lauryn says.
In 2018, the sister duo started having conversations about bariatric surgery.
The procedure involves surgically reducing the amount of food an individual can eat and absorb by shrinking the stomach. This can be done by removing a part of the stomach, placing a band around the stomach, or rerouting the small intestines to decrease the stomach's ability to take in food.
Liah contemplated bariatric surgery for a couple of years, and she recalls crying to her mom about the tough decision. Not only was it "discouraging" for the twins to work out consistently with little to no results, but she knew how they might be judged if they went through with the procedure.
"I think a real big reason I pushed off bariatric surgery is because of everyone thinking that oh, you just want surgery because you want an easy way out," Liah says. "So thinking about what everyone would think would take a toll on our mental health as well."
But ultimately, Lauryn adds, the procedure seemed like the "right choice to get our health on track," and she decided to be the first to go through with the surgery.
Their doctor, Dr. Melissa Felinski, a bariatric surgeon with UTHealth Houston and Memorial Hermann, told the twins they were ideal candidates for bariatric surgery.
"I met Liah and Lauryn when they were 21 and 22-years-old," Felinski tells PEOPLE. She said their weight could contribute to the development of numerous serious health conditions, including "type 2 diabetes mellitus, heart disease, stroke, hyperlipidemia, fatty liver disease, obstructive sleep apnea, osteoarthritis, and certain types of cancers."
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"Bariatric surgery has been proven to achieve significant sustained weight loss, more than diet and exercise alone, and improves quality of life," she continues. "Even after bariatric surgery, it is important to maintain a healthy diet and exercise routine as well as continue regular follow-up to safely maximize weight loss and prevent weight regain."
In order to have the surgery, both Liah and Lauryn had nutritional evaluations and were required to show that they were able to commit to healthy habits, in addition to psychological evaluations.
"For Dr. Felinski to even want to go through with the surgery, she gave us a 10-lb. weight loss goal," Lauryn explains. "And my initial visit right before the surgery, I did not hit that and she was on the verge of canceling. She wasn't okay with that because she wanted to make sure that this was something that we could handle and for it to be sustainable for us."
After proving that they were both able to commit to and handle the necessary lifestyle changes, the twins had their procedures. Lauryn got her surgery in December 2018. She weighed 255 lbs. and is now 158 lbs. Liah's surgery was in September 2019. She weighed 282 lbs. and is now between 160 to 170 lbs.
The pair call the procedure "life-changing" and have been blown away by their ability to make lifestyle changes to maintain their weight loss over the years. Liah explains that they're more educated about healthy eating, which she says is the hardest part about keeping the weight off.
"There are people who can work out and then go for a burger and be fine but that just wasn't the case for us, and we had to learn that the hard way," she says. "We didn't have the metabolism where we can eat fast food and still work out and still maintain a healthy life."
Lauryn adds, "Realistically, people crave chicken sandwiches and burgers and french fries. But I'm learning that, you know, cook it at home because at least at that point, you know what you're putting into your body."
Not only do the twins cook together now, but they continue to work out together, documenting their progress in the gym over the years on a joint Instagram page. Lauryn boasts that she’s both physically and mentally stronger than she’s ever been after getting her health on track.
"We don't seek validation but it's nice to hear when we have friends commenting on Instagram and messaging us and just telling us how good of a job we're doing," Lauryn admits. "It's really nice to hear and it helps encourage us."
She adds that it's even easier to push herself harder in the gym with her sister and best friend by her side, rather than being alone.
"I think it helps that we're twins. If one of us isn't doing what we need to do, we'll see the other one and be like, oh that's what I can look like, I need to push myself," Lauryn says. "So it's like looking in the mirror."
"We hold each other accountable," Liah says. "It's a friendly competition too. Sometimes one lifts heavier than the other or sometimes one runs faster than the other."
Since their weight loss transformation, the twins are committed to keeping up with their new lifestyle, "even through tough times," and are excited about establishing new goals.
"The surgery was honestly the best decision I could have ever made for my health," Liah says. "I'm ready to just set new goals and push myself further. I'm about to run a half marathon and I've never run that many miles. Just pushing myself to new challenges."
"Your body really tells you a lot. The limits that you can push are a lot further than most people think," Lauryn adds. "I'm really looking forward to getting stronger and seeing my body transform into a different version that I could never imagine myself getting to."


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