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Thursday, Jan. 28, 2016 12:13 am

Not so sweet after all

Learning to skip sugar with a group nutrition challenge

Molly Suhadolnik: “A lot of people don’t have as hard of a time getting motivated to get into the gym as they do to eat better.”
PHOTO BY PATRICK YEAGLE

 

Molly Suhadolnik hates sugar. The Springfield fitness trainer is on a mission to make people think about what goes into their bodies, and sugar is at the top of her hit list.

Rather than merely preaching the gospel of the low-sugar diet to anyone who will listen, Suhadolnik is making converts through a “nutrition challenge” which couples education with accountability.

The 30-day challenge started earlier this month with a screening of That Sugar Film, a 2014 documentary which examines the effects of refined sugar on the human body. For the film, Australian actor Damon Gameau had doctors monitor his health for two months as he began consuming 40 teaspoons of sugar per day. During the experiment, Gameau ate only processed foods typically assumed to be “healthy,” but which contained large amounts of added sugar. As a result, he gained nearly 19 lbs., experienced impaired mental function and developed fatty liver disease after only 18 days.

Suhadolnik, a coach and co-owner at CrossFit Instinct in Springfield, says if the only thing her group takes away from their nutrition challenge is dropping sugar, it “could literally be life changing.”

“Just starting with that one small thing and sticking with it can catapult your whole life,” she said.

The direct effects of sugar on the body aren’t completely clear, but research links sugar to obesity, adult onset diabetes, high cholesterol, heart disease and possibly even impaired brain function and accelerated aging. Quitting sugar can be difficult, however. Animal studies show consuming sugar increases the brain’s production of dopamine, a feel-good brain chemical associated with drug addiction and rewarding activities like sex. Avoiding sugar can be tricky, too; it occurs naturally in some unrefined foods, especially fruit, and most processed foods contain added sugars, often with unfamiliar names like “evaporated cane juice.”

Through regular emails and group discussions, Suhadolnik is encouraging the 45-plus people participating in the challenge to trade in high-sugar foods for unrefined foods high in protein and fiber. The challenge provides a regular reminder of sugar’s prevalence and negative effects, along with a group dynamic that encourages accountability.

“The idea is to not just do a 30-day hardcore challenge and then quit, but to make this something they can do every single day and continue it past these 30 days,” Suhadolnik said. “I think a lot of people don’t have as hard of a time getting motivated to get into the gym as they do to eat better. It’s the 23 hours outside the gym that they have the hardest time. I totally understand that.”

Ashley Pyatt of Springfield says participating in the challenge has helped her stick to her dietary plan because she knows the others are doing the same.

“Having a group of friends you can be candid with on nutrition successes and failures has been the best part,” Pyatt said. “I am very close to the members at CrossFit Instinct, so this challenge encourages me to be accountable for my choices. I hold myself accountable for my nutrition choices, in hopes I can help motivate others to stay on the same track.”

For Abby Griffith of Springfield, the challenge has helped her better understand how food fuels her body and how the quality of food matters as much as the calories.

“I would say that most people, myself included, have an unhealthy relationship with food,” Griffith said. “So for me, it really wasn’t about making good choices, it was about the relationship I have with food and understanding how it affects other parts of my life.”

Bob Buckles of Loami says that, despite trying to eat a “paleo” diet, he struggles with his food choices “because it’s easier to keep doing the same thing.” The nutrition challenge has helped him be more aware of his choices and stick to his plan more often.

“There is a greater sense of accountability not only to the group but also personally,” he said. “I would not have taken the challenge if I didn’t intend to stick with it. I’m much more active in grocery buying and food preparation than before. Feeling better both mentally and physically is of great benefit, also. My goal is to keep improving and learning so as to have a better lifestyle.”

Robin Malloy of Springfield says food marketing and other factors make it hard to stick with her eating plan.

“With so much information out there, it is easy to get confused and conflicted as to what you should follow and what you should ignore,” she said, adding that the challenge has helped her focus on the important information. “It makes it easier to bounce things off of others, and that they know exactly what you are going through.”

Suhadolnik says she didn’t require the group to set specific goals, aside from eating better, because she found the pressure of meeting a goal can sometimes have the opposite effect. Instead, she urges her group to see their food choices as part of their lifestyle, so each meal is an opportunity for a clean slate.

“That seems to work better,” Suhadolnik said. “There’s less guilt, and people are more motivated to get back on the train, rather than thinking they’ve completely fallen off and are done.”

Contact Patrick Yeagle at pyeagle@illinoistimes.com.

For more information on That Sugar Film, visit thatsugarfilm.com.

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