This article was originally posted March 2015. Text and images have been updated.
These days, it seems like everyone wants to put a label on their eating. Vegan. Paleo. Gluten free. Clean. When people find out I'm a dietitian, I often get a lot of speculation about what kind of eater I am.
"You must be a healthy eater."
"I bet your diet is perfect."
"Are you _______ (insert name of latest diet trend)"
Nope. I never quite know what to say, because being grilled about your eating habits is...uncomfortable.
If I had to be known for a certain eating label, I would just want to be a normal eater.
Unfortunately, in our world of weight stigma and thin ideal and diet culture, normal eating has become abnormal. It's hard to know what's "normal" anymore because most people do engage in disordered eating behaviors in some form. Think about the 10 people you last spoke with today and how many of them are trying to manage their weight at some level and I think that illustrates my point quite nicely.
Dieting and disordered eating have become normal eating. Both are so prevalent, that we often label concerning eating behaviors as normal. Skipping meals to save up for a big dinner. Normal. Avoiding entire food groups. Normal. Spending an hour each day tracking calorie intake. Normal.
Clearly, that's not the kind of "normal" eating I'm talking about. So, what's the normal eating I strive for?
Normal eating is going to the table hungry and eating until you are satisfied. It's being able to choose the 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. That's dietitian Ellyn Satter's definition of normal eating, and I like it.
Normal eating may be eating something sweet every day. It may be eating a few sweet foods in a day. Or maybe for you, normal eating is eating sweets a couple times a week. Normal eating may mean eating a brownie (or two!) today, or leaving them on the plate because you know it'll be available tomorrow.
Normal eating means eating out of hunger most of the time, but not always. Normal eating is occasionally drowning your sorrows in a pint of Ben & Jerrys or mindlessly eating leftover stale donuts a coworker brought into work. You may feel a hint of guilt, but rather than saying "to hell with it," you are able to look at the situation objectively and brainstorm a better way of dealing with the trigger in the future. Because there will always be stressful days and coworkers who like to bring in donuts.
Normal eating is nourishing yourself regularly throughout the day. Perhaps it's with three meals a day, or maybe for you it's usually 5 smaller meals. There may be busy days when you find you've gone too long without eating and feel ravenously hungry. There may be days where you just don't have much of an appetite, and miss meals or snacks. There may be days where you feel very hungry and eat more meals and snacks than usual. Some days you may miss the mark, but for the most part, you're giving your body what it needs.
Normal eating means adapting to what food is available in the situation. Maybe that means eating at a restaurant you don't like because that's where your friends want to go. Maybe that means ordering takeout because you don't have time to cook. Maybe that means throwing a ton of random snack foods together to make a meal and even though it isn't super satisfying, you know you have plenty of opportunity for tasty meals in the future.
Normal eating means food is part of life, but it isn't all of life. Food may, or may not be an interest. But normal eating leaves room for other interests too.
Normal eating means making decisions based on what you want and need in the moment, and what's available to you. In order to have options available, they may plan or prep, but the goal of planning/prepping is to have options, not to subtract options.
Normal eating is flexible. Nuff said.
Normal may value nutrition - or not! There's no rule that you have to eat healthy. Normal eating knows that nutrition is one form of self care, and not one everyone is morally obligated to engage in.
If you zoom out on normal eating, you'll see lots of nutritious foods - and plenty of fun foods. Some days may have a higher ratio of nutritious foods. Other days you might just eat cheese sticks, french fries and a fried shrimp po'boy. But it's okay because neither is good or bad it's just what felt good and right at that time. Normal eating balances out "mistakes" in eating over time, so they aren't really mistakes.
Mostly, normal eating is knowing food isn't your enemy. Normal eaters know food is there to nourish your body, and your soul. Normal eating means food is your friend, an ally who is there to support you in living a good life.
What does normal eating mean to you?
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