Welcome to Insight Mind Body Talk, a body-based mental health podcast.
Today’s episode is part of an ongoing pursuit of dismantling the diet industry and freeing people of the unrealistic and often harmful expectations that we can and should be perfect.
My guest today is Janice Antoniewicz-Werner. Janice is a registered dietician nutritionist. She’s passionate about helping clients make peace with food. Janice specializes in assisting those struggling with disordered eating and individuals recovering from diet culture. She specializes in intuitive eating and is a Certified Intuitive Counselor and promotes a health at every size philosophy. Janice believes eating should be enjoyable and flexible and not result in fear or guilt. Her goal is to help her clients achieve a sane and peaceful relationship with food.
Janice has over 35 years of experience in the field of treating eating disorders. She has extensive training in intuitive and mindful eating. Her education includes a Bachelor of Science Degree in Dietetics from the University of Wisconsin, Madison and a Master of Arts Degree in Counseling from Oakland University. She is a certified eating disorder registered dietician.
Janice, welcome. I am so glad you’re here with us today.
Thank you for having me. I am passionate about this topic. This is the season where food is available, and people feel guilty about eating but want to enjoy it, so they talk about new year’s resolutions. The weight loss and exercise industries that makes money off of that are really in the mix this time of year. You’ll be starting to see ads for weight loss programs and exercise programs.
If a person wants to do a reset and the relationship with food and exercise, this could be a really good time to start.
We both come from the eating disorder support network here in Madison. You are a strong part of that network. We talk often about the messages that people are getting about what we’re supposed to be, what we’re supposed to look like, how we get our power, and how we’re acceptable. The messages that so many people are getting are false and often lead to a disordered relationship with food, a disordered relationship with exercise, with ourselves.
For someone who’s never heard the phrase diet culture, how would you explain that?
Diet culture is the message that we get that thin is always better. If you are thin, be fearful about gaining weight. There are right and wrong ways to eat. The purpose of exercise is to control your body. It’s one size fits all and you’ll never measure up. The underlying message is, you’re not good enough. It’s an external control. We’ll tell you how to do it and make a lot of money off of it.
Once you’re aware, you can see how pervasive diet culture is and challenge those messages with your own internal dialogue. A peaceful relationship with food is controlled internally. You use your own hunger and fullness, how food feels in your body, how moving feels in your body. That’s an internal job.
Diet culture tells you it’s external, that thinness equates to health and well-being. Some behaviors that diet culture supports are utilizing a scale to know if you’re healthy or not, that how many times a week you’re exercising equates to health, and so does what size your pants are. We’ve been culturally conditioned into thinking that that’s what health is. Now there’s even starting to be issues with overexercising and eating too healthily or being too focused on health.
Part of diet culture is that there’s good food and bad food, which is not true either. It suggests that there’s a perfect way to eat and exercise. Really, there is no such thing. It’s ideally driven by the individual. What works for you? What feels good in your body? Include all foods that you want to eat because food tastes good.
The idea that if you enjoy eating, you should feel guilty is part of diet culture. One of the foundational pieces of intuitive eating is unconditional permission to eat. You allow yourself to eat what you want when you want in an amount that’s satisfying without fear or guilt. To get there, you have to focus on your own internal guidance. The challenge is to block out everything else.
Diet culture and specific diets can seem science-based, but the science of nutrition is in its infancy. There is still a lot to be learned and things are changing all the time. So, if someone says this is a perfect way to eat, it’s not true. It’s much more important to know what your body needs because you’ve listened and can tell when you’re hungry or when you’re full and what foods your body’s craving.
Some of these behaviors are important for health and wellbeing, for example, knowing if you’re eating enough protein, but then the diet and the fitness industry take it so far, so that they can make money off of us. Eating enough protein is needed for muscles and hair and nails and keeping your organs repaired.
I’ve noticed that when people get to the other side, they feel betrayed. They’ve been sold these things as the way to fix their lives. Often, they’re angry about it because it takes joy from your life to feel like you’re not good enough, or to constantly be worried about what you eat or how you move your body.
Many of my clients have discussed how hard it is to be in the place of knowing that counterculture, because so many people don’t understand what we’re talking about. Once you are on the other side and you realize how dysfunctional and harmful this is, it’s challenging to have this understanding when the rest of the world still really supports diet culture or weight loss or good and bad foods and things of that nature.
There’s the internal work of coming to terms with it and being okay while you’re surrounded by it every day. It can feel a little lonely and vulnerable to be on the other side. You’re not part of that cult that everybody else is doing.
This time of year, in particular, is hard. You’ll hear people socially saying, I shouldn’t eat this or I was really bad, or I didn’t eat all day so I could eat whatever I want. That makes me sad because I know those people are trapped in that cult. Then you have to decide, am I going to tackle this? I often silently just wish them well.
The point is that most of our culture is immersed in diet culture, and it can feel lonely to be on the other side. Later, we’ll talk about ways of viewing it to help fight against loneliness and feel more connected to other people who understand this as well.
Let’s talk about the health industry.
How is the diet culture linked with the health industry?
It’s all about money. They’ve gotten savvy over the years, like changing the names of diets so they sound more like health. It’s important to stay on top of what is being said so that you can pick out the diet culture pieces. Diet culture masqueraded as health, leads to a more distorted relationship with food and a distorted relationship with exercise.
We could have another episode about the medical industry. Many of my clients are traumatized or re-traumatized by medical professionals telling them weight loss is the only path to X, Y, or Z. Pick any illness or condition you see your doctor for, and they weigh you and tell you that your size is the problem. People in larger bodies are treated differently.
The industry promotes it as wellness, but the goal is still weight loss. When people are trying to make changes, they can feel like they broke the rules and now have to punish themselves by exercising or eating healthy foods. This is all part of a deprivation scheme, so now, people start believing healthy behaviors are punishments. Healing requires establishing a different relationship with those foods or with moving your body to get on a more neutral or positive plane.
The idea that you can have it all is confounding because it breaks a lot of those rules. When people find a balance that works for them, they feel good. When people move their bodies in a way that they enjoy, they feel good. That’s the goal. Diet culture totally ignores how you feel inside. That’s an important distinction. We want to get to eating foods that are good for you because they make your body feel good and gives you nutrients, not because they’re low-calorie.
I’m a non-traditional trainer in that I’ll ask, what would you enjoy doing? You should only do movement you enjoy. You didn’t want to move last week? So many people say, ‘I was bad’ and I say, no, you just had other things going on, your bandwidth was full. It’s okay to move when you want to and focus on other overall health behaviors when those are more important.
Dr. Kelly McGonigal has a book called the Joy of Movement and she traces how different cultures move for joy and how alive and connected they feel. If we can harness moving our bodies in a ways that helps us feel more alive, that’s the path we should pick, not movement to punish or lose weight or get back on track. If the intention is to experience more joy, you’re going to orient yourself to different things than you would if the intention was to lose weight.
I also like the idea of eating and moving as self-care. When you’re choosing what you’re putting into your body, which includes all foods. If there is delicious food that you eat and enjoy, that is self-care.
The same thing with exercise. The notion that for exercise to count it has to be for a certain duration and you need to sweat, or it doesn’t count. That eliminates a lot of movement for people. Instead of what feels good and if you need to take a break because you’re tired this week, that’s good self-care. It isn’t good self-care to push yourself to do something.
I think about the brain. When we are forcing ourselves to do 45 minutes, but at 30 minutes we start to feel shut down or tired or irritable and it’s no longer fun, in our nervous system that’s a threat. What does it do with anything threatening? It’s not going to pursue that again.
Diet culture takes food and movement and makes them threats. I see so many people get overwhelmed trying to take on all of these expectations that aren’t coming from within. Their systems feel threatened and they avoid it. It becomes a negative story that there’s something wrong with them, they are not good enough or they’re lazy. Really, their brain and body are responding appropriately to something that is not enjoyable and feels threatening.
You’ve talked about thinking about intentions and goals in a new way. Can you talk more about that?
The foundation of any change is your intention.
If your intention is to feel better or to have a more peaceful relationship with food, it can be as basic as, how do you want to eat? When are you getting hungry? When you choose to eat, how does it feel in your body? It becomes a pattern, but it’s totally internally driven. Diet culture takes away from us as trusting your own body. The comparison I often use is, would you follow somebody else’s schedule on when to urinate? No.
Diet culture teaches us that hunger is bad. I think it’s really empowering to look at hunger as a positive. Hunger helps. That’s your body working perfectly. That connection can feel really empowering.
This isn’t about perfection. Your body will help you get it right if you’re paying attention to it. It is wonderful at telling you what it needs. If you make a mistake, you eat too little or too much, your body helps you. If you under eat, you’ll get hungry sooner. If you eat a larger meal, it will take longer to get hungry. You can trust your body.
It might take a while because we’re generally not used to using our bodies in that way. A perfect first step is paying attention to hunger and fullness and how they feel.
People often use the word hunger when they want to eat, whether it’s physical hunger or another reason to eat. Pay attention to that too. It’s helpful to distinguish using food for non-hunger reasons, as a coping strategy for instance. You may want to investigate other coping strategies, so you have less of a reliance on food, if it doesn’t feel good to you.
It’s a very personal thing and an ongoing process, but trusting your body is going to feel much better than trying to follow a bunch of rules that don’t work for you and lead to people blaming themselves.
There are some subtleties to intuitive eating. If a person gets sick, we don’t rely on hunger as much, but still need to eat. Often when people are stressed, they lose their appetite, but your body still needs food. The more you pay attention, the more you learn about how your own body works and how you use food. Then, you can decide if that works for you or if you’d like it to be different.
Internal trust and listening to the body can be really scary for people. What do you mean, I just listen to my body? What if I mess up or what if it’s wrong? What if something bad happens? It’s kind of an experiment. We take it slow.
Lindo Bacon talks about, that your body will take care of you. This isn’t a concept we talk very much about in our culture. The body will heal. The body will show you what it needs if you slow down and listen. That’s a foreign concept in diet culture, because it doesn’t sell anything. If you are using your own body and intuition, you don’t need to buy products online. You’re deciding what works for you.
I encourage people to be curious. Take the stress out of eating as much as possible. Ideally, eating is relaxed. It’s a natural thing. We literally do it from the moment we’re born. It’s always been there. We’re going back to something that was once very natural. That can be reassuring.
One of the first things we do when an infant cries, is pick them up and give them food. Often, it feels good, and they stop crying. It’s one of the very first things that we make an association with. Food for comfort is very natural. It only becomes a problem if it is a person’s only reliance for comfort, or they don’t feel good about it. If it is, or if you don’t feel good, look into other ways to soothe the system.
It’s okay to use food, to enjoy food. You don’t need to feel guilty about what you eat, even if you decide in retrospect that wasn’t a great choice. You didn’t fail. It’s just such a natural part of our evolution. Just be mindful about it.
How would you recommend someone pursue a health goal without becoming influenced by diet culture?
It’s helpful to look at what you think is working or not working. Ideally what we try to do with eating is balance nutrition with pleasure. You want to satisfy the pleasurable aspect of eating, but also want to give your body all the nutrients that it needs.
Historically, most people don’t eat enough fruits and vegetables. That’s a good one. Are you getting enough fruits and vegetables? Not because it’s a diet thing, but because they’re loaded with vitamins and nutrients. Vegetables often have a negative association with diet culture. This is your opportunity to look at what your body gets from these foods and find delightful ways to prepare them. Maybe you want to roast them in olive oil or in a way that brings out sweetness. Prepare them in a way that tastes good.
The other is fluid. Do you keep your body well-hydrated, which helps with elimination, with keeping your skin from being too dry. All of the metabolic processes in your body take place in water. Those are two very simple things that really do promote health.
The other piece is to pay attention and be curious about how you’re using food. Why do you eat when you’re not hungry? No judgment. Just pay attention.
If you’re focusing relating to food differently, try eating mindfully. A lot of eating is mindless. You might walk by some M&Ms and grab a handful, that’s not criminal, but be aware of what you’re doing and if you enjoyed it. The whole point is to enjoy the treat. When we are enjoying different foods, we are being mindful versus mindless. It is not a black or white thing. You don’t have to eat every single morsel mindfully. The idea is to pay attention so that you’re aware of what you’re eating and if it tastes good.
Another thing I find interesting, is when people who have binged on foods in the past give themselves unconditional permission to eat, they often find out they didn’t even like those binge foods.
If someone wants to just take away one thing, it’s trying to eat mindfully. Slow down and enjoy and pay attention and see what you really like and don’t.
If we’re told we can’t have something, we might want it even more. When you have permission to eat anything you want, what truly tastes good? My friend Annie will say, there’s optimal foods and go to foods, but then there are foods that meet all of your needs down to the tip of your toes. What are those foods? Are we aware of what brings us that satisfaction?
What can people do to feel better, to create a different way of existing in the world?
Creating an internal mantra or new internal narrative. That’s what they’re doing and this is okay for me.
Research shows that habits change if people feel good about what they’re doing. It releases dopamine, a feel good chemical, in your brain and your brain is like, oh, I like that, I want to do it again. So, when you are acting on behaviors that are in your interest, give yourself an attagirl or an attaboy to get that dopamine hit, because then you’ll want to do it again. Avoid beating yourself up for things, because it’s not going to put you in a position where you can easily act. Really appreciate even a little progress that is going to move you forward. Give yourself positive reinforcement no matter how small it seems.
A lot of the eating and die culture is simply habits. It’s helpful to question them and decide what you want your habits to look like going forward. Then, be specific about how you want to accomplish it. For example, I’m going to have a vegetable every day this week. I have carrots and lettuce and am going to do this with them. Then have a plan to help back you up. You’ll be more successful if you know what you want to do.
The biggest thing is self-compassion. People have an idea that the more they beat themselves up, the more they’ll act on positive behaviors. That couldn’t be farther from the truth. Working one’s way out of this takes time and patience. It’s a process that works much better with self-compassion. Research even shows that when people are compassionate with themselves, they reach their goals much quicker and maintain them much longer. They also report feeling better the entire time. That helps them maintain long-term health behaviors. Self-criticism and criticizing other people doesn’t work. It just makes our brain not want to do that thing. Compassion truly does help us reach our goals. It’s not about giving yourself permission to do nothing, it’s about giving yourself permission to be human.
Janice, thank you so much.
How can people learn more about you?
They can contact me through the Madison eating disorder support network. I have a website, Janice Antoniewicz-Werner Consulting will be in the show notes. I offer services and am very happy to support people in this process. My personal goal is to help people be joyful and peaceful eaters.
I’m so grateful we have you in our community. Thank you.