After following Dani for some time, I was so excited to finally have an opportunity to get into her head a bit deeper. This figure competitor knows firsthand the dangers of disordered eating and helps her clients break the cycle and rebuild their relationship with food.
EM2WL: Thanks again, Dani, for agreeing to be interviewed. Just to give everyone a brief background, you started lifting in high school which led to competing and winning several competitions, most recently taking first place in novice and third place in open at this year's Axis Labs Northern Colorado's figure competition. You've also authored several articles and recently published The Sound of Secrets: End Disordered Eating, recounting your sister's battle with the disease. Why did you feel the need to write this book?
Dani: I wrote this book after losing my big sister. She struggled with anorexia for nearly two decades, and a few months after her death it occurred to me that my sister’s struggle, though extreme, started somewhere fairly benign, at a place where a lot of women find themselves now.
I wrote the book to stop women (and men) from going down that same route, and to help them break out of the eating habits that make them feel and look miserable.
E: In your book you labeled disordered eating as the new normal. How do you think society has come to this state?
D: I don’t know if we can blame any one thing. It would be easy to point the finger at Photoshop, the media, and the underrepresentation of strong, healthy bodies. But I think it’s more complicated than that.
I have to wonder if the rise in disordered eating is just a backlash (a strong and adverse reaction) to the rise in obesity. Maybe people are just trying to avoid becoming the norm but going about it in counterproductive ways. There’s a general misunderstanding about how to be lean and healthy for the long haul.
Another thing that might have something to do with it is the increasing availability and consumption of hyperpalatable, processed foods. The salt/sugar/fat trifecta makes a lot of people compulsive overeaters. (It had that effect on me.) And when people want to be thin, yet become addicted to foods that do the opposite, they resort to compensatory actions instead of building a healthier relationship with foods that nourish.
Any level of disordered eating is a thief of our happiness, sanity, health, time, self respect, and potential.
E: Do you feel that many of today's popular diets like paleo or IF contribute to the problem? What are your thoughts on IIFYM?
D: I think modern diets are just a symptom of a problem that’s already there. Sure, they can contribute to it and overcomplicate it, but diets are not where the problem begins. The problem begins in the mind, and it begins with our perception of what will make us healthy, fit, lean, and happy long term. Those who are obsessed with weighing less at the expense of their health are at risk for disordered eating, no matter what diet they subscribe to.
IIFYM (like many dieting strategies) can be beneficial or harmful depending on what your mindset is when using it. If you’re really focused on nourishing yourself then it can be used for good. It has its place, but it’s not a way of life. Counting and measuring everything you eat for your lifetime is insanity. Are you going to take scales and measuring cups with you everywhere you go? At some point you have to trust your ability to eye-ball an appropriate amount of food, and then eat according to your hunger. At some point you have to trust that your metabolism will work in your favor and use everything you consume.
Another thing — avoiding hyper-palatable food, the stuff that’s engineered to make you eat more, is a good idea. But I don’t see that as dieting, just self-defense. And filling your body up with what you know will nourish and satiate, is the best way to take care of yourself and become leaner in the process. No diet necessary.
E: When most people think of disordered eating, images of purging or extreme restrictive dieting come to mind. Would you consider behavior where someone regularly over indulges on the weekend and then tries to ‘burn it off' or restrict calories afterward to be disordered eating?
D: Yes, this is definitely disordered. Anytime you overindulge and then try to compensate for it, you’re engaging in what I described in the book as the “binge-punish” cycle.
When working with clients, I also refer to it as the Good Girl/ Bad Girl cycle or Good Boy/Bad Boy cycle. People perceive their behavior as “bad” when they lose control, and then they perceive their behavior as “good” the next day when they try to undo the damage. A lot of folks go through this cycle every single day and don’t realize it’s disordered… all they see is the weight gain that happens as a result. So when I work with clients who are want to lose weight we have to address this cycle first.
E: In your book you describe the 5 phases of the binge-punish cycle which start with highly addictive engineered foods and ends with bingeing. What are some ways people can break this cycle?
D: There are so many ways to break the cycle and they all depend on the person. But here are three that I often use with clients:
Breaking the cycle begins when you have the most control. If you end the day famished and tired, you’ll be more likely to default to whatever behavior is easiest or most habitual. This often means choosing the most convenient food – whatever it may be. So if you’re used to eating food that makes you crave more, you’re going to grab that in a moment of weakness. To break the cycle, nourish yourself early and often, and you’ll prevent the need to reach for things that don’t serve you.
Another way to break the cycle is just to make sure that your (home and work) environment accommodates it. Make sure you have healthy go-to foods available everywhere you are so that even if you are tempted to seek foods that trigger more eating, you have another easily available option.
Another way to break the cycle is to find out why you’re eating. Is your reason for eating physical or psychological? Check in with yourself and ask, “Am I eating this because I’m really hungry, or am I looking for a distraction and mental relief?” Strong emotions can start the cycle, and if you can get down to the bottom of WHY you’re reaching for food in the first place, then you can begin to establish strategies to deal with these emotions aside from food.
E: How important is it to have self compassion when trying to break free from disordered eating?
D: Self compassion doesn’t come naturally for most of us because we operate under the assumption that if you’re hard on yourself you’ll be more successful. This is a giant misconception and I think it’s what keeps people locked in their disordered eating.
Fighting against yourself instead of fighting on the same team makes it much harder to reach your goals. Once people really grasp this, they’re able to help themselves and break free. Self compassion is getting on your own team, and I think it’s essential for success.
For those that are suffering from disordered eating what are some steps they can take toward rebuilding their mindset about food?
Seek understanding. Find resources (books, coaches, articles, other people) that can help you change your mindset. Focus on changing your thinking and behavior instead of your macros and calories.
Women tend to get excited by weight loss no matter how it's accomplished.
E: Fitness and strength training have obviously been a big part of your life. At EM2WL we encourage women to lift heavy weights and often run into the ‘fear of getting bulky' objection. What do you say to women when faced with a similar concern?
D: This is one of my favorite things to address. If you’re trying to change your disordered eating you have to change your disordered thinking. See if you can let go of the smallness goal because ironically, the strategies that make you weigh less initially are the same exact ones that either backfire and make you gain weight in the long run, or enslave you in a life of wasting away.
When you lose weight without building muscle you become a “smaller” person. And as such, you have to eat fewer and fewer calories (otherwise you’ll go right back to the same weight you were). But muscle changes that. It makes you expend more energy, and it requires you to consume more energy to grow.
Muscle not only ups your metabolism it also makes you look leaner. No matter how much weight you’re carrying, muscle will change the shape of your body like nothing else. And in order to have muscle definition, you have to have muscle. There’s no way around it.
E: Thanks again Dani! How can our readers hear more from/follow you?
D: Thanks for letting me share! Get in touch! Here’s where you can find me:
After working with a personal trainer for 2 years and competing in her first competition, Stephanie realized that under-eating and doing excessive cardio may not have been the best advice. Now she has put competing on hold to focus on building healthy habits. Five years ago I was going through many things in my life that most of my closest friends and family weren't even aware of. I was depressed and had blown up to 220 pounds. I hated exercise and loved food (still love food). I was embarrassed to even leave my house in fear I would run into someone I knew. A friend asked me to start walking with her. “Ugh!! Really??”..was likely my response. She continued to nag me until I finally gave in. We started walking the track a few times a week. Just a mile. Felt pretty good though. I decided that I hated the way I looked and felt and I was the only person that could fix it. So I started watching my portions and started exercising at home for 20 minutes 6 times a week. Then my friend asked me to do a bootcamp with her. “Ugh!!!!” Yep, again. After assuring me it was suitable for all fitness levels (it wasn't….at all) I again gave in and went. Longest, hardest and most miserable 60 minutes of my life. But I did it and continued to do it for several weeks a few nights a week until the camp was over. After losing 30 pounds on my own, I was introduced to a personal trainer. I asked his price and hired him on the spot. This was a huge turning point. I trained 3 times a week and took spin 3 times a week. My trainer mentioned the possibility of me competing in fitness competitions. It sounded very intriguing and what a goal!!!! I trained with my trainer 3 times a week for 2 years. In that time I did compete in my first fitness competition. It was probably the most rewarding thing I've ever done…and the most physically, mentally and emotionally wrecking.
After two years I felt I was outgrowing my trainer and wanted to go in a different direction. I felt the next natural step for me was to become certified to train (I was already a certified spin instructor by this time). I became certified and continued to compete…learning from my mistakes and really bad advice all along the way. Under-eating and over-doing cardio. This year I really changed my approach and decided to skip competing this season. I was developing healthier habits and was afraid my habits were so new that if I competed I would resort back to old ways. Will I compete again? Yes. Hopefully with a much more wise approach. Until then I will continue to search for my happy place while motivating and training others while helping them avoid the pitfalls I suffered. Exercise is the easy part…food…that's tough. I have to remember to give myself credit (and a break) for how far I have come…even though I still have so far to go to become balanced.
Has eating more changed your life? Have an EM2WL transformation to share? We’d love to see it! Be featured on our Transformation/Journey page by submitting your story to Success@EM2WL.com
While many women spend their lives dieting, or doing whatever it takes for the ripped, “fitness model” or competitor look, other ladies are choosing to walk away from industry all together. In this special interview, Danny-J (of The Sweaty Betties) was so awesome to share with us her experience not only to the competition stage, but also AWAY from it and its damaging extremes. If you've been dieting and killing yourself for hours in gym for longer than you can remember, yet feel like you're moving further from who/where you thought you'd be by now — you will want to read EVERY word. Being over-trained and under–fed for a “look” was once her driving passion…how does she feel about it now?
EM2WL: At what age did you start competing? Danny-J: I was 25 when I started competing.. oh wow, that makes me sad
E: What inspired you to compete? D: Initially I was an acrobat and in really good shape and people just kept asking me if I competed. I didn’t even know what that meant so I looked into it. Then I was intrigued and very impressed with the bodies and I really wanted to have that kind of physique.
E: How long did you compete before deciding to leave the competition world? D: My first show was in December 2006 and my last show was in November 2009. So it was 3 years.
E: Did you always do Bikini or have you competed at multiple levels? D:I did Figure for my first two years (it was the only option besides bodybuilding) and the last year I tried two bikini shows.
E: How many competitions did you typically participate in per year? D: I did about 3 a year. It was too many.
E: Can you describe the weight fluctuations between off season and competition prep? What about changes to your diet? D: I didn’t have a lot of weight fluctuations. I was in great shape before competing and I mayyyybe would lose about 3-4 lbs. However, the more I competed the more I thought I had to do. I pushed too hard when I didn’t need to. After my last show I gained over 30 lbs and now I am still sitting about 15-18lbs above my old “normal” weight
E: Can you describe what a typical day was like when prepping for the stage? D: Eating the same meals every day, on the clock: 7am, 10am, 1pm, 4pm, 7pm, 10pm.
Usually a workout before work then cardio and then work. Then sometimes more cardio after work around 9-10pm.
E: You've mentioned on your website and in videos how competing has affected your metabolism. Were there any signs that led you to discover this? D: Sure, there were signs, that I heavily ignored. Fatigue, hunger, loss of sex drive. I thought these things were “normal” or “just part of the process” so I had to just “suck it up” …I felt like this was what set apart champions from the rest, was that “we” could tolerate some discomfort and lack of sleep. Little did I know how badly I was hurting myself and how long it would take to crawl out of that.
E: Can you tell our readers some of the extreme methods you utilized to achieve a ‘stage ready' look? D: I would say, for me, it was just a very low calorie diet (900-1100 per day) for over 8 months straight with zero carbs nearly the whole time and an hour of cardio a day, 7 days per week and I worked two jobs. During my first year I did two hours of cardio a day, but I was eating carbs and I convinced myself that was better… it wasn’t. Luckily, I didn’t do any fat burners, T3, or other drugs I’ve heard of, but truth be told, I think I’m still just as damaged from the extreme dieting for so so long. Your body can only be deprived so long before it rebels.
E: Were there other areas, physical or psychological, impacted by competing? D: Absolutely. I was depressed. I went to the Dr. for Prozac. I thought I was crazy. I had anxiety because of my weight gain. My sex life was in the toilet, so obviously my marriage was affected. I didn’t even want my husband to touch me or see my body, which makes me want to cry now. I panicked about being in public. I didn’t want pictures taken of me. My skin was a mess, breaking out all the time. I felt completely exhausted, like a zombie, for months. Honestly, there were times I wanted to die.
E: Do you feel that there are any methods of prepping for Bodybuilding/Figure competitions that don't compromise ones metabolism? D: I have seen very few coaches do it, but yes, I do believe there are. For one, I think that its making sure you have plenty of time to prep—this trying to lose 30 lbs in 12 weeks and get on stage is BS. Also, you need breaks between shows and there is NO reason why anyone needs to calorie restrict so bad. I just recently trained a client from Fit To Be in Your Kitchen with guidance from Ruben Sandoval and saw first hand how someone could eat more food and have less and less cardio before the show. However, you still have to be STRICT and its mentally taxing.
E: Was there an aha moment where you decided to get out of the business? D: Yeah, honestly, it was more of a political issue at the time than even a physical one. I went to a show where I was basically threatened by the organizers, it was my last show. I did not place well and I was basically being “taught a lesson”. I realized at that point, that this wasn’t even a physique contest, it was a business and one that I no longer wanted to be part of. Ironically, my body didn’t want to be part of it either.
E: What would you say to the many women who want to look like a fitness cover model? D:Looking like a cover model is an interesting goal. Sometimes I wonder what is really lying behind that goal? It is possible and attainable. Sometimes I think people just want to prove that they can do something, and I understand that. My whole life I have felt that I needed to prove that things could be done when others say they couldn’t. However, I will say that getting a cover is fleeting. Someone else is on the cover the next month. You need to have more depth and substance. If working out becomes your life to the point of missing family events, not enjoying dessert on your wedding anniversary or affecting your family life, its time to step back and see what you’re really avoiding. If you’re just wanting to be the healthiest you have been and feel great and encourage others, then, great! Just check your motives and try to live life in balance. Life is too darn short.
E: Do you think it is a realistic goal for the average woman to have if they are not competing? D: Realistic… maybe. I think so much depends on genetics. It may be very realistic for some and not at all for others. I honestly am not really sure if I think it’s a WORTHY goal. I spent 3 years so focused on my abs and how my body looked, but do you know what my goals are now? To donate as much money as I can to Big Brothers Big sisters, to volunteer with tornado clean up, to build teams of amazing women, to help people get out of debt. I think it’s a possible goal and I think goals like that give us a reason to keep working out and be healthy, but I’d like to see some deeper and more meaningful goals at this time in my life. I’d like to see us AS WOMEN have better goals. We are capable of more. What happens if you get up and can’t walk tomorrow?! (It happened to me) guess what? You won’t give two sh**s about your abs. This I promise.
E: Do you have children? What kind of message do you think bikini and figure competitions send to young girls? D: That’s a tricky question. I do not have children, but I did have a daughter, whom I gave up for adoption. I was pregnant at 15 and now she is 16.
I actually went to a “real pageant” where they had a talent and swimsuit competition and it was SO different. The suits were so modest and there were no sexy or provocative poses. When I was first “in it” I saw the “physiques” I didn’t see all the sexed up parts, but then being away and seeing the other type of pageant, my eyes were opened. I would not want my daughter to look at those types of bikini shows and aspire to be in them, however, I would support her in whatever she chose to do and I’d try and make sure she was being as healthy as possible.
E: How has your life changed since stopping competing? D:The first two years were rough. I was miserable. Sick, tired, fat, depressed, lost. I felt like a lot of my identity was wrapped up in how I looked.
Now, today, it’s better than ever. I don’t have panic attacks if I can’t work out. In fact, I can take weeks off of the gym and just be active and eat what I want and maintain my weight. I have learned to LISTEN to my body and have learned to LOVE and FORGIVE my body. I’m still heavier than where I want to be, but I’m honestly feeling more comfortable with myself than ever before. I can try new fun workouts instead of being so regimented in my schedule. I can be spontaneous and have a fit LIFESTYLE rather than be a gym rat (which there is nothing wrong with). I had to do a lot of INTERNAL work to get to where I am now and who would have ever guessed that the damage I caused would eventually be a blessing? (If you had asked me in 2010 I would have said HELL NO!!) I have really found freedom in movement and food and life in general. Parts of me regret competing but then I would not have the self-awareness that I do today.
E: How can our readers see more from/follow you? (FB/IG/Website, etc)
D: Thank you Kiki, this interview was fun…I hope it hits home with the right people
Danny-J is the owner of The Sweaty Betties: an “irreverent group of women who are looking to get fit and have a whole lot of fun along the way.”
Danny-J’s fans (The Sweaty Betties) are wildly enthusiastic about listening to someone who isn’t afraid to put some of the diet and exercise myths on blast. Danny’s passion in fitness lead her all the way through a Master’s program in Health Promotion and Exercise Science at California University of Pennsylvania. She holds numerous certifications for personal training and weight-loss and is an accomplished trainer, helping dozens of clients lose OVER 100 lbs. and helping 1,000’s of clients live healthier lives in her 8+ years training.
However, Danny-J, wasn’t always such a positive and motivational person. She had her share of struggles, being a suicidal teen, she ended up pregnant at 15 years old. She chose to place her daughter for adoption and that motivated her to start to get her act together, so she could be proud when and if she ever got to meet her child again.
She is now married to her best-friend and “Big Tattoo Muscle Man” and they live in Dallas, Texas with their two silly pups.
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