What Does "Normal Eating" Even Mean?
Emily Fonnesbeck, RD
At this time of the year when so many people are making goals around food and eating, it’s a good time to be reminded about what constitutes normal eating habits.
The best quote comes from fellow dietitian and author Ellyn Satter, who is known for her Eating Competence Model. She is more concerned about helping you develop eating confidence and competence versus developing uber-healthy eating habits.
In essence, you would do well to learn how to self-moderate and trust yourself to make wise decisions around food than to stick to certain outside rules or guidelines for eating. Her definition of “normal eating” will help explain this concept:
“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 to make up for your mistakes in eating. 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.”
What this definition does is normalize a wide variety of eating behaviors. Eating should be flexible, variable, satisfying, nourishing and enjoyable. It shouldn’t be obsessive, preoccupying, rigid, overwhelming or worrisome.
If your eating habits currently feel chaotic and haphazard or restrictive and obsessive, this can feel very out of reach. So how do you get there?
Recommendations for normal eating
1. Don’t tell yourself there are certain foods you can’t have. That will only work to increase anxiety around food and will encourage all-or-nothing behaviors. When you know you can have a food anytime you really want it, its power over you decreases. On the other hand, if you know this is the last time you’ll be able to have it (or at least the last time this week or this month, etc.), you’re going to have all of it right now, no matter how uncomfortable it makes you. It’s much easier to behave in a level-headed, sane and wise way around food when you aren’t being micromanaged by rules.
2. We tend to run scared of feeling satisfied because we equate it with overeating. However, satisfaction is our solution. Eat for the intent to feel satisfied. Eating to feel satisfied naturally decreases overeating or under eating because neither of those are satisfying (rather, uncomfortable or painful). Feeling full and satisfied from your meals and snacks is your solution. Not feeling full and satisfied is what leads to problematic behaviors.
3. Normal eating is about being intentional, mindful and aware. Instead of tracking calories or portion sizes, note hunger and fullness levels before and after eating, while paying attention to how the food makes you feel. After a meal or snack are you left feeling satisfied? Energized? Lethargic? Still hungry? Balanced? Get curious about how you feel and function instead of being judgmental about what you look like or weigh. This will help connect you to intuitive signals that will naturally guide eating instead of outside rules or measurements.
4. As mentioned, normal eating includes being mindful. While it’s not realistic that we always eat without distractions, aim to show up to your meals with awareness. You are more likely to know when you are full and satisfied if you are paying attention. Maybe set a goal to do this with one meal or one snack each day.
Becoming a normal eater is possible for everyone. In fact, you aren’t learning something new, you are remembering something you were innately born with. Keep that in mind as you practice — you can trust yourself with food.
Emily Fonnesbeck, RD is a Registered Dietitian who owns her own private practice in southern Utah. Her nutrition passion consists of helping individuals free themselves from diets, disordered eating, food anxiety, poor body image and obsessive exercise. She has a non-diet, weight-neutral, client-centered approach to help people make peace with food and live confident, healthy and satisfying lives.
Visit her website.