What is normal eating?

By January 19, 2017Food & Body


I’ve been asked a few times via Instagram about normal eating ~ What it is, how to achieve it and why diets mess it up so badly. I’m really keen to explore this topic in more depth and I hope you find my thoughts helpful. Please remember that this is purely based on my own experience with food and I am not a dietician or professional.

I really love this explanation of normal eating by Ellyn Satter: “Normal eating is going to the table hungry and eating until you are satisfied. It is being able to choose food you like and eat it and truly get enough of it -not just stop eating because you think you should. Normal eating is being able to give some thought to your food selection so you get nutritious food, but not being so wary and restrictive that you miss out on enjoyable food. Normal eating is giving yourself permission to eat sometimes because you are happy, sad or bored, or just because it feels good. Normal eating is mostly three meals a day or four or five, or it can be choosing to munch along the way. It is leaving some cookies on the plate because you know you can have some again tomorrow, or it is eating more now because they taste so wonderful. Normal eating is overeating at times, feeling stuffed and uncomfortable. And it can be undereating at times and wishing you had more. Normal eating is trusting your body. Normal eating takes up some of your time and attention, but keeps its place as only one important area of your life. In short, normal eating is flexible. It varies in response to your hunger, your schedule, your proximity to food and your feelings.”

She captures exactly what I believe normal eating to be – honouring your body and being flexible. Sometimes you won’t be completely intuitive and will completely ignore your hunger and fullness signals and this is normal. Even people who are textbook “normal eaters” and have never had a disordered relationship with food overeat until they’re stuffed sometimes – because something tastes good, because they’re in the moment with friends/family or because they just want to. The difference is that these moments aren’t followed with feelings of guilt or shame or the panic that they need to make up for it the next day. They know it’s exactly that, a moment and when they’re hungry again they’ll eat.

The reason diets mess up normal eating is because of rules. Strict instructions as to when you can eat, what you can eat and how you can eat it are seriously going to disrupt a healthy relationship with food. Your body knows what it wants and when it wants it. Your body sends you signals as to when it needs food and when it is satisfied. A reminder here that a rumbling stomach is the last sign of hunger so it is not a good idea to wait until this stage to decide to eat. With diets you could find yourself eating when you’re totally not hungry or counting down the minutes until you are allowed to eat again because a diet completely disregards your body’s innate needs. However diet plans want to sugar coat it they are never the best thing for your body. Not allowing yourself something you truly want will give that food item way to much control over you and I can guarantee when you “allow” yourself to eat that food again, you won’t be able to eat it intuitively because at lack of a better word, your relationship with that food is f*cked. But, the good news is.. it can be healed and this is how.

I recommend working on tuning back into your body’s requirements. This can be really hard at first but the more you listen and respond, the more obvious the signals become. It’s important not to become obsessed with this or turn it into another another diet by vowing only to eat when you’re hungry and to stop at the exact moment you are full. Because that isn’t realistic – Normal eating is not a set in stone pattern of eating behaviour, it changes and adapts to your need in each moment. That’s why you can’t plan to be intuitive, you can’t pre-empt how you are going to feel later in the day, next week or in the next moment. All you can do is respond. That unknowing can be terrifying when you are used to controlling your intake or sticking to a set plan but it is the only way to get back to a healthy relationship with eating. Fuelling your body is an innate bodily need, denying yourself food is like denying yourself oxygen. You need it and no matter what you ate yesterday you need to eat today. It’s important to have a range of foods that you enjoy readily available for you to eat, nothing is out of bounds or needs to be approached with a last supper attitude – “Normal eating is leaving some cookies on the plate because you know you can have some again tomorrow”. This idea can go against a lot of recommendations for overeating but it was absolutely crucial for me. As soon as I didn’t allow a certain food into my kitchen, I’d find myself binging on it at the next moment it was readily available to me. You can have chocolate, peanut butter, crisps, cookies, bread, whatever the hell you want to in your home without being terrified of eating it all in one go. It takes hard work, it takes physically allowing yourself to eat what you want to and ALSO mentally allowing yourself to eat what you want to. 

Diets love to sell us a quick fix but achieving normal eating takes time. It takes a lot of time. Especially if you are coming from a background of extreme restricting or diet and binge cycles. I know it can be frustrating when things don’t slip into place right away but it’s so important to allow yourself the time to get to know your body’s needs. I know this goes against everything diet culture wants to tell you but I promise you it’s true. I was stuck on the wheel of diets for almost 10 years and it’s taken me over a year to get to where I am today. Be patient with yourself and know that I’m rooting for you every step of the way!

Useful resources:

Beating the binges
Anti-diet 101

Jamie Mendell:
Lets talk about icecream
What respecting your body really looks like
When mindfully eating chia seed pudding isn’t self care

Lu Ulrich:
The key to changing your relationship with food and your body

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