There aren’t many people who can truly make you look at the world differently, but during my interview with That’s What She Eats blogger Aubrey Johansen, I saw a different side of life, and it left me inspired.
Aubrey is a personal chef and healthy-living blogger in Cleveland, OH. She is also a bariatric surgery patient and has taken some absolutely life-changing steps over the past few years.
At 23, Aubrey was obese, which began to affect her life in powerfully negative ways. She was going through voice performance Masters auditions and was told that they couldn’t cast her because of her size. Living on food stamps and unable to pay her bills, a meeting with a chef who hired her to work in the kitchen was the start of something new, but 10-12 hours on your feet can be incredibly painful for someone who is overweight.
That’s when Aubrey went to see her doctor who told her that if she continued on her current path, she would be dead by the time she was 40. He suggested weight loss surgery, and though she was skeptical at first, Aubrey had a “sit back and watch me” moment. She got the surgery and began to fully focus on working toward her health goals.
Within a year, Aubrey lost 100 pounds and ran a mini-triathlon. She had “a new lease on life,” stopped working at the restaurant, and began sharing her story on her blog and Instagram. She wanted to show “how a 20-something was conquering morbid obesity, but still eating real food, not just Lean Cuisines or protein supplements.”
Aubrey doesn’t believe in diets or counting carbs, and she’s definitely not scared of eating. She takes a realistic and clean approach to food consumption, focusing more on ingredients than carbohydrates. As a personal chef, she’s always finding new ways to combine simple and easy ingredients to make fabulous meals that her body loves just as much as her taste buds do.
While exploring Aubrey’s blog, I went back to the very first post from July 2016. Part of it reads: “This is my first blog post, and years from now I’ll either come back, read this, and laugh because I’ve changed my whole world, or I’ll laugh because I thought I was going to be able to run a blog.”
When I brought this up to Aubrey, she laughed and said, “I forgot that I had written that! It’s definitely been cool. I did not expect for it to turn into what it has today, which is basically a full-time job. It’s been quite the ride.”
NYMM: What is a day in the life like for you?
AJ: I get up in the morning and make coffee without fail. It’s not even that I need it to survive, I think it’s just about the ritual of it. Then I’ll head to one of my clients and grocery shop and cook dinner for them and everything. After I’m done with that, I’ll usually have a couple meetings with a local company to discuss any projects we’re working on. I think people think that running your life on social media is glamorous and fun, and to some extent it is, but it’s a lot of paperwork. You’re constantly on your email, filling out forms, or trying to write your taxes. I’ll answer all my emails and then I’ll get into the kitchen before it gets too dark. Thank goodness summer is coming so there’s a lot of daylight. I try to create one to two new recipes a day and photograph them for companies that I’m working with or just for personal content.
NYMM: Was photography something you were always interested in or is it something new that has come from this?
AJ: It was definitely something I was interested in. Facebook will show me old pictures that I took in 2012 or 2013 and I’ll laugh at them because they’ve come so far. I think teaching yourself something is difficult and teaching yourself something as an adult is really hard, but it can also be really rewarding to learn a new skill and then watch the progress over the years.
NYMM: How does cooking affect your day and life?
AJ: I think cooking centers me; it’s my me time. No matter if I’m cooking for a project or just cooking for myself or my friends, I always have a playlist going and a glass of wine. It’s my time to be in my space, doing my thing. I don’t feel like I have to think too hard; I just go with the flow. It’s a moment to relax and unwind, and then there’s a great reward at the end.
NYMM: How do you find empowerment in your everyday life?
AJ: In today’s world, you can feel out of control about so many things. Our lives are so busy and there are a lot of things we don’t get to decide for ourselves. We aren’t always in control of our day, but I find treating my body with respect is one thing I can control. I don’t believe in diets or diet culture. As someone who used to be morbidly obese, I think it’s scary for people who are trying to lose weight or have recently lost weight. It’s hard to let go of that mentality, but I think by granting yourself the peace of mind of knowing what’s healthy for your body, that’s really good for you.
NYMM: To people who have just lost weight or are trying to lose weight, do you have any suggestions on where they can start?
AJ: It’s about first making one really small change. When I think about all the times I tried to lose weight or wanted to get healthier, I thought I had to cut out every single thing in my diet, and it felt terrible. All of a sudden, I was depressed and deprived, and it was not successful. Instead, you should make a small step each week or two weeks. Maybe you’re going to stop buying Doritos or Oreo cookies, which I love. I can’t be trusted around them, so I don’t buy them. If I’m at a friend’s and we are having cookies and a glass of wine, I won’t say no to them, but I don’t buy that stuff for myself. So, make one small change. If you’re in the snack aisle, maybe just leave one thing out of your cart that you know might not be the best for you and instead buy a vegetable and some hummus. If you can switch up your snack game, that’s everything.
NYMM: How do you stay motivated?
AJ: I’m not sure that anyone wakes up in the morning and is completely motivated, passionate, and excited to go sweat. It’s really hard. I talk to people about this a lot, and I don’t really think it’s motivation, it’s a lot of good habits that you build for yourself over time. You’re going to have really bad days where you don’t want to move your body. Or maybe you’re having a bad month or a bad six months. You just have to hope that those habits you’ve instilled in yourself are still there, and when they’re not there, it’s okay to cut yourself a break. Giving yourself the space to breathe and not being hard on yourself is equally empowering.
NYMM: How have your personal story and struggles changed your relationship with food?
AJ: I feel like I walked out of morbid obesity a survivor because I’m not afraid of food. I don’t ever want to think about being healthy just so I don’t get fat again. I want to be able to give my body healthy things that feel good for me mentally, too. If I want to go out on Friday for pizza with friends, I want to know that it won’t diminish all my hard work but it’s also about making a choice between eating a mass-produced fast food pizza or going to a local restaurant where I know they make the dough in-house and use really good ingredients. It’s kind of like you’re making a totally different choice. I find so much more freedom in looking at a label and thinking, “There are five things in here that I can actually pronounce as opposed to a 100-calorie snack that has maybe 60 ingredients and all of them have the word acid in them.”
NYMM: What do you hope to show others by sharing your story?
AJ: It’s possible and I’m not perfect. I don’t want people to think I don’t struggle because I definitely do, but I have more good days than bad with that kind of mentality. I think of it like 80/20. When I’m thinking of food decisions, I’m 80 percent thinking that food is fuel, so I should pick easy and simple things to put into my body. And then the other 20 percent, I’m thinking about the memories made. In Ohio, we don’t have a lot of warm weather and our winter lasts a long time, so patio season is a big deal. I don’t want to say I can’t have a glass of wine on a patio with my friend because I’m scared of gaining weight. I think of those memories as moments that are so worth the indulgence. It’s life – you can’t miss all the good stuff.
NYMM: What do you think you’ll make today?
AJ: Well, I just cut up some strawberries and was thinking that I’m supposed to go to dinner at a friend’s house tonight and they said to bring dessert, but I don’t really bake. I’m bad at it and I hate rules. So I think I’m going to roast the strawberries to make a sauce and then whip some cream and have a roasted strawberry/whipped cream situation. I’ll pick up some ice cream for people who want that underneath it. Earlier today at a client’s, I made eggplant Caprese bites. I sliced the eggplant into little rounds and spread them with pesto and cut up fresh mozzarella, tomato, and basil, and [added] a drizzle of balsamic and put them on the grill. It looked so good.
And for tips and tricks for a coffee pick-me-up, Aubrey’s latest blog post was definitely a great start to my morning!
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