In our area, there is a thriving community of people working toward healthy lifestyles. I’ve met many people as I’ve explored different classes, and Nikki Johnson is one of them.

After a gastric bypass surgery, the first real meal she ate was from McDonald’s, and she threw it up. She had the surgery at a weight of 480 pounds—and she stands about 5 feet tall.

Johnson made the decision to get the gastric bypass after her nephew asked her why she was “the only fat one.” It was a wake-up call to get healthier, but she didn’t know how. She used Fen-Phen, a product that led to a $3.75 billion payout after thousands of lawsuits were filed against the manufacturer of the drug, which was pulled from the market.

For Johnson it triggered migraines and she said, “It was so unhealthy my body went into shock.”

People look at a gastric bypass as a magic cure for obesity, Johnson said. But she died on the operating table four times, and has been living with unanticipated side effects of the surgery ever since.

She had to learn to walk all over again and the stitches inside didn’t dissolve the way they were supposed to. Still, “I came home, went back to work and started living my life,” she said. That included cravings for chocolate and one day she found herself in another McDonald’s, this time with a hot fudge sundae. She had intended to just have a little taste but couldn’t stand to see the rest of it thrown away. By the time she got to her car, she was sweating although it was freezing outside, her heart was racing, and she thought she was having a heart attack. Again, she threw the fast food up.

“I was broke, living paycheck to paycheck, eating the same shit I was eating before, McDonald’s, Burger King—that’s all I could afford,” Johnson said. Then she got laid off and her relationship ended, and she hit rock bottom, with no job, no car, and no hope.

Then she met her future wife—and everything changed for Nikki Johnson. Now she had a reason to live and take care of herself, and her new love did not have a microwave and didn’t want one. “How else am I supposed to heat up my Hot Pockets?” she recalled saying. Seven years later, “she won that battle,” Johnson said. “She helped me learn how to eat the right foods.”

Complications from the gastric bypass meant that their first two years together were “all health related,” and included four major surgeries.

“My wife is a very active person,” Johnson said. “She would hike up to her mom’s road, three miles up, three miles down. She was used to being active.” Johnson wanted to keep up, and she wanted to be there for her future grandchildren, too.

Nikki Johnson, on the verge of rappelling this past weekend with her wife and stepson. She said she didn't go down, but is looking forward to trying it again.

Nikki Johnson, on the verge of rappelling this past weekend with her wife and stepson. She said she didn’t go down, but is looking forward to trying it again.

Another few years went by, and the pair decided they were “tired of being tired all the time.” They started going to Planet Fitness but said they felt judged, “two little fat girls walking in there.”

Johnson tried a Zumba class, and next thing she knew was doing it three times a week. Before she knew it, three months went by. “I started to feel better because I was moving,” she said.

Part of the program she had started was Herbalife, a direct sales company that features shakes and other products. She had tried other brands and didn’t like the shakes, but she liked Herbalife and soon signed up as a distributor to get a discount on the products. She started to lose about 2 pounds a week, and over the course of the past two years has dropped 68 pounds. She has lost 32 inches, 22 of those from her waistline.

“We stopped eating convenient and started making the home-cooked meals,” she said. The couple has a meal-prep day.

She and her wife now also host dance fit classes in Edgewood and Albuquerque, and they started an Edgewood walking club, too.

“Once I started listening to my body, the problems ceased,” Johnson said. “Emotionally I was angry and I had nobody to talk to about it. … Before I met Jenn, I was like, I love myself. Then Jenn started one of her email blogs. … Jenn said, I want to build the self-love that I feel when I’m with you. I want others to feel what I feel.”

Throughout the conversation, Johnson repeatedly came back to her wife. Happiness sparkles from her eyes when she talks about her. “Jenn—she’s my why,” she says.

“I had a food addiction. My drug was food. … I turned to food and it was my comfort. Next thing I know I’m 480 pounds and I’ve got a 3-year old who wants to know why I’m the only one who can’t chase him.”

Her passion now is helping people who were in her position: Knowing that they have to do something, but not knowing how.

In addition to meal planning and prep, Johnson sets goals for the week, for the month, and for three months, and said it keeps her accountable to herself.

Her best advice for someone looking to get healthy? “Consistency. A phrase I hear all the time is small changes will give you big results if you stay consistent.” She also pointed to personal development as helpful in derailing habitual responses like turning to food under stress.

You can find Nikki Johnson and Jennifer White on their Facebook page, “Healthy Scene East.” Or stop by Route 66 Elementary School at 6 p.m. on Tuesday nights for their dance fit class. The first class is free, and the cost is $7. You can reach Johnson at 505-401-2667.

Do you have a story of making lifestyle changes from couch potato to active? You can reach me at 505-286-1212 or leota@lobo.net, or join the conversation in my Facebook group, “I’m Losing It!”

Leota Harriman
Leota Harriman

Leota started working for The Independent in 2006, working her way up through the ranks. An employee buyout in 2010 led to her ownership of the newspaper. Leota has served on the board of the N.M. Press Association, and is currently its First Vice President. She is passionate about health and wellness, especially mental health, and loves making art. She can be reached at news.ind.editor@gmail.com.