- Success Stories -

Sweet Rewards: Susanna and Ilya Gorodisher’s Success Story

How one couple overcame a legacy of obesity — and built a stronger life together along the way.

Susanna and Ilya

On Valentine’s Day 2012, Susanna Gorodisher was taking her husband, Ilya, a gift of boxed chocolates when she stopped in her tracks. Ilya sat in the den, his notebook computer resting on his knees because his belly blocked his lap. It suddenly occurred to Susanna that she was holding the source of her partner’s problem in her hands.

Susanna and Ilya had both struggled with their weight most of their lives. A decade ago, though, Susanna had finally managed to lose 95 pounds. She decided to focus her career on healthy living and became a personal trainer. Ilya was a dedicated runner, but even with an active lifestyle, he was gaining weight.

She hid the chocolates and decided to have an intervention.

“I told him that I loved him, and that I had good news and bad news. The good news was no more running.” Susanna figured Ilya might do better swapping his evening runs, which he hated, for strength training, which he loved. “The bad news? He had to give up sugar.”

A Family Legacy

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Susanna and Ilya met in Boston in 1983 and married three years later. “We’ve been able to grow together,” Susanna says — but unfortunately, she explains, that refers to their weight as well.

In 1986 they moved to Tucson, Ariz., and Susanna opened her own jewelry store, where she sat for hours. Her weight ballooned. To lose the weight, she dangerously restricted her daily food intake. She lost 100 pounds but says she was “exercising myself to death. It was awful.”

In 1990 the couple relocated to Stillwater, Minn. And by 1993, when Susanna gave birth to their son, Ian, she had gained back all of her weight.

When Ian was young, he fell in love with trains; Susanna would pick up lunch at a fast-food restaurant and then drive him to a switching yard. “We’d sit in the car and watch the trains — and eat all this garbage,” she says. “I was bringing him up the same way my mom brought me up.”

As a child, instead of going to after-school activities, Susanna played in the back of the room during her mother’s Overeaters Anonymous meetings. “I grew up not knowing what normal was,” she says. “I was chubby from day one. I remember my first diet in second grade, and being picked on in elementary school.” When Susanna was 19, her mother died from a cerebral hemorrhage, which doctors attributed to her obesity, undiagnosed type 2 diabetes, and high blood pressure.

One day in 2000, Susanna watched as Ian climbed atop a teetering jungle gym at the park. She went to retrieve him — only she couldn’t pull her body up onto the platform to reach him.

“I was 100 pounds overweight, and I had a 7-year-old boy who I couldn’t physically get to and who could fall to his death because I couldn’t lift up my own leg to get onto that platform to get to him,” she remembers. “I realized I was in exactly the same spot, raising a child like my mother had done.

“And I realized that I didn’t want that for Ian. I didn’t want that for me, and I didn’t want that for my husband.”

That epiphany on the playground wasn’t just about Susanna’s weight. It was about ending the family legacy of obesity.

A New Life

Susanna returned to her favorite cardio fitness classes and lost 70 pounds. Then for months her weight loss plateaued. So she joined a new gym, where personal trainer Jeff Bissonnette convinced her to try weightlifting. “I just grew to love it,” she says. “I loved the feeling that I got from being strong. I had a much greater sense of accomplishment than I did after my intensive cardio routines.” Not only that, within four months she lost another 25 pounds.

Eager to learn more, she went on to earn her personal-training certification from the American College of Sports Medicine and later returned to become a cancer exercise specialist. Many of her clients are challenged with fibromyalgia, arthritis, spinal issues, injuries, or autoimmune disease. “I’m interested in helping the woman or man who has an obstacle,” she says, a nod to that low platform she previously couldn’t mount.

When Susanna confronted Ilya that Valentine’s Day in 2012, she knew her husband, a scientist, would need proof he had to give up sugar. The philosophy of calories in versus calories out was the science he knew. “I was running five or six miles a day,” he remembers, but he was at his heaviest weight and couldn’t zip up his size-42 pants.

“That night I told him, ‘Sweetheart, it’s Valentine’s Day, and this is how I’m going to express my love to you this year,’” she says. “I told him, ‘You have got to change. You’ve got to stop what you’re doing because it’s not working. You are killing yourself running and you’re in agony and you’re bigger than you’ve ever been. This has to be proof to you that what you’re doing isn’t right for you.’”

She knew he’d want hard evidence and a solid plan, so she gave him homework: books and documentaries by researchers Gary Taubes, Michael Pollan, and Robert Lustig.

And she packed meals for him to take to work: taco salads, kale-and-chicken stir-fries, and snacks of fresh berries, cutting out all other fruits, refined carbohydrates, and sugars. He stopped running and focused on lifting weights.

Within a week, he dropped a notch on his belt.

By summer 2012, he lost nearly 50 pounds and wore size-36 pants. “My knees stopped hurting, and my back doesn’t hurt anymore,” he says. He rekindled his love of playing tennis. In March 2013 his doctor cleared him to stop taking his blood-pressure medication, pills he had swallowed daily for five years.

A Treat of Love

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Still, Susanna and Ilya’s desire to eat a healthy diet sans sugar left them at an impasse when it came to treats. “Ilya told me in July 2012, ‘I feel great; my pain is gone. But if you expect me to live a life of kale, this isn’t going to work,’” she says. It dawned on her that his complaint — one of restriction — was a common one for her clients and herself.

So the nutrition-minded personal trainer and the research scientist took to the kitchen to concoct healthier desserts. They developed a line of ice creams using all-natural ingredients, sourcing whole milk from local, pasture-raised cows; a vegan line uses coconut milk. They created vegan dark-chocolate bars and bits for their ice creams, which are gluten-, sugar- and soy-free. And they made a sorbet line sweetened with organic fruit, as well as organic stevia, which they use in most of their products.

The name they chose for their desserts? Luv Ice Cream — to acknowledge that pivotal conversation Susanna had with her husband on Valentine’s Day.

“I feel incredibly grateful that I have a husband who has been supportive of me at any given size,” says Susanna. “I’m so glad we’re now here together.”

is an Experience Life senior editor.

Photography by Stephanie Glaros

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