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Katia Smirnov holding a glass

Growing up, in Russia, I didn’t give much thought to what I ate or where my food came from. Frankly, I didn’t need to. My grandmother was a gourmet chef who made sure I ate a lot of vege­tables and fruits, and the produce we bought was always fresh.

But things changed after my family moved to the United States in the ’90s: I started gaining weight, breaking out, and feeling really lethargic and down.

I was confused. I had continued living a similar lifestyle, eating the same foods and maintaining the same activities that I had back in Russia — but I knew there had to be something behind the changes. I attributed them to the move, a subsequent culture shock, and puberty. As a 13-year-old city girl, I was having some trouble adjusting to small-town life in a new country, where I felt like a fish out of water. It made sense that my body would be responding to the stress of the move.

Yet when a few years passed without improvements, I decided I needed to do something. Together with my mom, I began researching possible causes and realized that the issues I was experiencing might be from the food I was eating.

Going Organic

This realization came as a shock at first. My diet hadn’t really changed since we’d moved; in fact, I was mostly eating the same foods that I had eaten in Russia.

But when I learned about the chemicals, preservatives, fillers, hormones, and GMOs that are pervasive in the U.S. food supply, the issue became clear: Beneath the surface, the food I was eating wasn’t the same.

With that knowledge, I decided to adopt a more intentional whole-foods-based, organic diet.

The change was drastic. Very soon after adopting these new eating patterns, I noticed that my sleep improved, my skin cleared up, and my energy and mood bounced back. It was amazing: I felt like myself again.

Encouraged by my progress and eager to capitalize on it, I decided to join the Life Time near our family’s home in Columbus, Ohio. Though I’d never established a stable fitness routine, my lack of experience didn’t deter me from diving headfirst into the club’s offerings. I jump-started my fitness education by taking classes, trying different cardio machines, and testing my limits through strength training.

As a result of my healthier diet and fitness routine, I lost the extra weight I’d gained, and the difference in my well-being was like night and day. I knew I’d found the lifestyle that would support me moving forward.

Finding the Right Fuel

My routine kept me energized through­out college and into the start of my career working for a global payroll company. I moved up the corporate ladder until I decided to branch off and cofound a company in the finance and real estate industry.

For the next few years, I remained extremely busy. As the company became successful, I was on the go all the time, and with everything on my to-do list professionally, I simply didn’t have the time to cook the whole-food, organic meals and snacks that had fueled me the past few years. I needed something quick that I could eat on the run.

Protein shakes and bars seemed like the logical solution to my dilemma. The trouble was, I couldn’t find a single protein bar I liked. After trying a number of options, I noticed very quickly that if a bar tasted great to me, it usually meant there were a lot of unnatural additives and flavorings I wanted to avoid.

On the other hand, the bars that were “good for you” — at least according to their labels — often tasted like bricks to me. I knew there had to be a better way, so I decided to create my own.

Armed with my experience of cooking gourmet meals with my grandma, along with my knowledge of nutrition and whole foods, I approached the challenge with the conviction that I could make a delicious bar that would fuel my lifestyle.

I tried a bunch of different recipes — combining foods like spinach, kale, pomegranate, and lemon with other nourishing ingredients — and after some trial and error, I finally created a bar that made me think, Wow, this actually tastes really good. I was thrilled.

Creating a Better Bar

After I’d found my winning recipe, I felt compelled to take this further than my own kitchen — I couldn’t be the only one who wanted a better-tasting and more nutritious bar.

So I started bringing batches to parties and gatherings without telling anyone about my hope to sell the bars. I wanted honest opinions, and I knew that if people knew my plan, they’d be too quick to tell me what I wanted to hear.

Soon I had friends and colleagues coming up to me and asking if I could make bars for them to buy. I began making small batches as a side hobby, eventually creating two more flavors I liked. Finally, I reached a point where I felt ready to take the plunge.

I stepped away from my first busi­ness venture and created Katia Foods in 2019. I found a co-packer — a com­pany that could help me make and package my bars on a larger scale — who ran a sample batch for all the flavors. Over the next three weeks, I took goodie bags of my bars to 45 different retailers in the area to see if they would be willing to carry my product.

That’s when things really took off. Amazingly, 40 retailers agreed to sell Katia bars. My bars hit the shelves in October 2019, and for the first couple of months, things were great. I was elated with how well they were selling.

But then came COVID-19, throwing a wrench into our progress. Rather than lose hope, I used store closures as an opportunity to revamp my website and develop marketing campaigns — and I’m glad I did. My online efforts helped get the name out, and now Katia bars are selling better than ever.

Staying the Course

Though I’ve only become busier since starting Katia Foods, I’ve learned how to pace myself and set my priorities. I recognize that my health is critical to the health of my business.

The most important thing is to feel good and have enough energy to carry out the goals I’ve set for my company, which I’ve learned I can achieve by sticking to a regular fitness routine and nourishing myself with food that’s free of preservatives and chemicals.

It’s hard to believe how far I’ve come from the 13-year-old Katia, who struggled to understand the changes her body was going through. Now, I feel incredibly grateful to have found the diet and lifestyle that fuels me, as well as to have the opportunity to share what I’ve learned with others.

Editor’s note: Katia Bars are sold in Life Time’s LifeCafes. Life Time publishes Experience Life.

Katia’s Top Tips for Success

  1. Nourish your body with nutritious food. After realizing the benefits of a mostly organic diet, Katia committed to fueling herself with fresh, organic products and foods whenever possible.
  2. Follow your passion. “Make sure you choose something you are truly passionate about,” Katia recommends. “Make sure it’s something you really, truly, absolutely love and believe in.”
  3. Be patient with yourself. “Just take it one day at a time,” Katia advises for anyone making a big life change. “As long as you’re making little changes on a daily basis, it will all add up and eventually turn into a habit.”

Tell Us Your Story!
Have a transformational healthy-living tale of your own? Share it with us at Reader’s Success Stories Submissions.

This article originally appeared as “Raising the Bar” in the December 2021 issue of Experience Life.

Katia Smirnov

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