Leon Heredia has known his share of dark, dismal days. He has battled his addictions, his demons, his weight.
By the time he was in his late 20s, he was drinking so much that even the owner of his neighborhood liquor store pleaded with him to stop.
A typical day would see him working in the kitchen of a local restaurant, one of two dozen or so through the years, then get off work and start drinking – straight vodka with no chaser – and devour two large takeout pizzas. He did cocaine to balance the alcohol. It gave him the kind of energy that enabled him to drink all night – up to a gallon of cheap booze a day.
It was a routine that took a toll on his health and his outlook. Heredia, who lives in south Sacramento, felt ashamed of who he had become. But he couldn’t figure out how to stop.
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Outgoing and upbeat in public, Heredia was liked and respected by colleagues and customers. But his relationships with friends and loved ones suffered. “I might have been nice at work, but I hated myself and I treated everyone else pretty bad,” said Heredia, 30.
Few people outside his immediate family knew the extent of the desperate life he was leading.
Now, thousands do.
Heredia figured it out, cleaned up, lost more than 100 pounds and opened up his once-private Instagram page, “Chefboyarleezy,” to the public, showing pictures of an obese young man transformed into someone boyish, confident and seemingly half his size.
“Around this time last year,” begins a March 8 Instagram post in which a svelte Heredia is donning a slim-fitting lavender dress shirt, “I was wearing 5X T-shirts. Now I’m wearing medium.”
“Here I am at 295 lbs. trying to take every shortcut you can think of to lose weight,” reads a February post with a photo of a shirtless Heredia at his heaviest. “If you really want to lose weight, you have to be ready for a lifestyle change.”
Additionally, he uses a variety of hashtags to help him connect with others, including #obesetobeast, #weightlossjourney and #sobriety.
The words, the wisdom, the photos seemed to resonate with those who viewed his social media posts and wanted to follow his example.
“He’s a lifesaver,” said Mark Montez, 45, who weighed 434 pounds when a friend showed him Heredia’s Instagram page. He noticed Heredia was preparing his meals in advance and Montez asked if the cook could do the same for him.
I would go to the gym, get drunk, come home and get two large pizzas from Little Caesars. My dad and my brother would be disgusted.
On Instagram, Heredia repeatedly preaches the gospel of clean eating and exercise, reminding his followers almost daily that diet pills, herbal cleanses and various weight-loss fads don’t really work. Others began asking about the small, set portions of food he was eating, known in the diet industry as “meal preps,” and Heredia soon realized he had a chance to reinvent his career.
He has yet to name his fledgling business, which boasts around 100 clients. Heredia charges $125 a week for three prepared meals and a snack each day. Lean cuts of meat, fresh vegetables and plenty of nutrient-rich kale are included in sealed containers and are ready to eat. The meals add up to about 1,400 calories a day, an amount Heredia calls suitable for “extreme weight loss.”
Montez says it’s working. He has lost 38 pounds in five weeks, and he hopes to get down to 285 pounds before he re-evaluates his fitness goals.
Like many who struggle with their weight, Montez says he gets in trouble with food when he finds himself on the go and has a sudden craving.
“I did Herbalife; that didn’t work. I did the Weight Watchers; that didn’t work. This has been the one that works,” said Montez, a small-business owner. “I’m on the go. My meals are prepped. I get up in the morning, I get a bag of ice and throw my meals in the cooler and I’m gone. If they are prepped, ready, delivered, I don’t have an excuse. I need my portions controlled. Plus, I get another hour or two hours of my life not going out to eat.”
In addition to his Instagram page, Heredia can be reached via email, email@example.com.
These days, Heredia has close to 5,000 Instagram followers and has become an inspiration, urging people to embrace the basics of diet and fitness as he shares his obsessions with working out, cutting calories and eating nutritious food. Many people who see photos and read posts about his health regimen respond to his no-nonsense approach.
“My whole family is eating cleaner,” said Danice Discipulo, a 33-year-old kindergarten teacher who lives in Elk Grove. “When I started with Leon, I was nine months’ pregnant. My husband was getting the whole ‘dad bod’ thing. He has lost 25 pounds – and that’s just from eating cleaner.”
Discipulo says she and her husband save time by buying meal preps. “We’re a busy family. The lifestyle we have now with our careers and our (two) kids being young, we just don’t have time to go to the grocery store, look up recipes and do the cooking.”
Her favorite dish from Heredia is tacos. “People think that if you’re on a diet, you can’t eat something like a taco. But his tacos are healthy. They incorporate kale instead of iceberg lettuce, and the tortilla he uses is whole grain,” she said.
Heredia’s fitness transformation probably seems legit to his social media fans because he has been so forthright about his successes and his shortcomings.
When he began exercising in January 2015, he was not in a healthy state of mind. Heredia was out of work, his former longtime girlfriend wanted nothing to do with him, and he worried that the young daughter they had together would see him as a failure.
Try as he might, he didn’t get his act together right away. When he joined the 24-hour fitness center within walking distance of his south Sacramento home, he was determined to lose weight, but he also battled low self-esteem.
“I would go to the gym drunk because that’s the only way I felt comfortable. I was drinking in the locker room,” he said. “I would go to the gym, get drunk, come home and get two large pizzas from Little Caesars. My dad and my brother would be disgusted.”
Eventually, Heredia landed in the hospital. He had OD’d on cocaine and alcohol. He thought he was close to dying. “I was on a five-day bender – pure vodka. My heart was racing. I thought I wanted to commit suicide. My brain was playing tricks on me. I was throwing up blood,” he said.
When he left the hospital, he experienced a fleeting moment of clarity that shook him deeply.
“I was worried that my daughter was going to see me on the streets and say, ‘That’s my dad. He’s an alcoholic.’ I said, ‘I have to change.’ I was not going to see my daughter grow up. I was sick of being a slob,” Heredia said. “I had this vision of losing 100 pounds and getting the mother of my child back, along with my daughter. It was crazy. But I had to do it for myself.”
His ex-partner, Elizabeth Frazee, had given up on Heredia after five years.“He always drank, but I didn’t know how bad it was until we lived together. He was terrible. He started getting drunk every single day,” said Frazee, who is a head clerk at a Safeway grocery store in Natomas.
For two years, she had no contact with Heredia, who had relatives pick up his daughter for visitation. Then one day, Frazee ran into her ex at a grocery store and was startled by how different he looked, how he seemed more grounded.
“It was awkward. We had a conversation for about an hour. I ended up going home and I had a different feeling about him. I just let go of all the anger and resentment,” she said. “It was really weird to see him in the right state of mind. He was looking healthy. It was a total turnaround.”
The two rekindled their relationship and have tackled this new-found healthy lifestyle together. Even the 5-foot-1 Frazee has lost weight, going from 130 to 110 pounds. “First, he put me on the meal preps and I lost 10 pounds. Then I started working out and I lost another 10 pounds,” she said.
Heredia says he has been sober since March 13, 2015, and he feels a responsibility to lead by example, especially given his culinary background.
Though he never made it to the top of his profession, Heredia has worked as a cook since his teens, cooking in numerous well-known kitchens, including Mix Downtown, Arden Hills Country Club, Alonzo’s Coffee Shop, Old Soul, Roxie Deli and Ink Eats & Drinks. His father, Leo Heredia, was for years the chef at high-profile Centro Cocina Mexicana in midtown.
As Heredia lost more weight and learned the ins and outs of nutrition, he struggled to reconcile what he was cooking at restaurants with what he now believed in. The oversized bacon cheeseburgers, the deep-fried platters of food and the extra-large portions, he came to believe, were doing more harm than good.
If he ever opens his dream restaurant, he says, he will only serve food that is both nutritious and tasty.
These days, strictly through word of mouth and social media, he’s growing his meal prep operation. When she’s not working, Frazee pitches in, too.
The man she once knew – overweight, dazed by booze and drugs, and paralyzed by shame – has been replaced by a role model and motivator.
“I love that he can have that much impact on other people. He loves helping people,” she said. “That’s one of his main priorities. He wants to help people change their lives and get healthy. I love that about him.”