Welcome to the Intuitive Eating FAQ Series. This is where I answer some of the most frequently asked questions about Intuitive Eating and a non-diet approach. Read more to learn how what “normal” eating actually looks like!
QUESTION: I came to terms with the fact that while I was actively dieting, I was pretty disordered. But at the time that was totally normal for me (and actually, everyone around me, too). Now I’m trying to reorient to a new normal but I’m not sure what that looks like. What is normal eating? And is that something I should use as a goal when I’m healing my relationship with food?
ANSWER: This is a great question because it gets into some of the nuances of what being a truly intuitive eater can look like. And the short answer is, “normal” eating can be different for everyone! Keep reading for the full explanation, but just know that what registers as normal eating for us depends on so many things. That includes, as you mentioned, the eating styles and habits of those around us and the messages we allow to influence our food choices.
And if you’re new to intuitive eating, start with this post to learn more!
What is Normal Eating?
The more formal definition of “normal eating” goes back to 1983 when dietitian and family-feeding expert Ellyn Satter came up with this list:
- Normal eating is going to the table hungry and eating until you are satisfied.
- It is being able to choose food you enjoy and eat it and truly get enough of it – not just stop eating because you think you should.
- It 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.
- It 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.
This is something I have printed and laminated in my office (because yes, I am not only a nerd about office supplies but I refer to it that often!) and often use it with clients. I’ll ask them to reflect on which of these things they feel applies to them or if there are things they feel aren’t applying at all right now. That’s something you could try right now if you’re curious.
It Is Never All Or Nothing
One of my favorite parts of this list is that it acknowledges that there will inevitably be times when we overeat – because yes, overeating IS normal! Likewise, there are some days where we’ll eat less – that is ALSO normal. And it points out that nutrition is still a piece of it. We can use the knowledge we have about nutrition to inform our decisions, but that’s never the only consideration because enjoyment and satisfaction are also key pieces of normal eating.
There’s so much room for the grey area in between rigid black & white thinking. This can feel unsafe when we’re used to the rules of dieting, so be gentle with yourself and offer yourself some kindness if you feel overwhelmed in letting go of those rules to find your version of normal.
Finally, I like that this list states that thoughts about eating and decisions related to it will take up some of your mental bandwidth. But it doesn’t suck so much time and energy from you that you’re incapable of focusing on other things or forced to limit what else you spend your time and energy on. When I think about dieting, even in subtle ways, it automatically starts to demand more time and energy than I’m willing to give it.
To summarize, normal eating means you’re able to move throughout your day (and your life!) without being so preoccupied with food.
What Does Normal Eating Look Like For Me?
So now that we have a general idea, this is where the fun part starts. You, and only you, are in charge of deciding what normal eating looks like for you. So although we can use this definition as a starting point, I don’t think it needs to be a goal or a checklist to accomplish before you can consider yourself a “normal” eater. The key is flexibility – people who have a good relationship with food know that one meal, one day, one week, or even longer is not going to have a significant impact on their health and can trust that they’ll return to their “normal” with time and patience.
So often as a dietitian, I’ll be approached by potential clients who want a meal plan. “Just tell me what to eat,” they’ll say. But I can’t do that for them because what’s normal for me (or according to any other resources they may try to rely on) isn’t what’s normal or right for them. Factors like your personal taste preferences, lifestyle and schedule, budget, access to food, and appetite all impact your way of eating. Those things can also change, which is another reason I dislike rigid meal plans and do not recommend them for most people most of the time.
NOTE: There are exceptions, such as during eating disorder treatment and recovery, but meal plans and meal planning are actually two different things in my mind. Read more about meal planning HERE, which can actually be a tool of self-care and align well with intuitive eating.
So in summary, normal eating:
- Is unique and individualized
- Is flexible and adaptable
- Does not add more stress or anxiety to your life or create friction
- Is something you think about sometimes, but not all the time
- Lets you live according to your values and priorities
- May not look like anyone else’s version (including your past or future self!)
How would you describe normal eating? What impacts your decisions about food?
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And if you’re looking for more support for a non diet approach and intuitive eating, be sure to check out my Resources Page. It’s full of books and tools to help you kick the dieting mentality and find food freedom!