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What is 'normal' eating?

POSTED: February 4, 2016 3:10 a.m.
Paige Smathers/

When fad diets get all the press, it can be easy to lose sight of what "normal" eating really looks like.

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Everyone seems to have an opinion about what you should be eating, how you should eat it, and when. The lure of diets can be intoxicating — promising quick, easy and drastic results. Everywhere you turn, there’s a new blog post, article, research study or casual conversation with a friend that revolves around weight and food.

The intention of many of these articles and conversations is good — many people have made it their life’s goal to help educate and inspire people to make healthier choices. But for many, these often conflicting messages end up creating confusion, self-doubt and ultimate stagnation in their quest for health. Because of dieting and confusion about conflicting evidence, many people have completely lost touch with what “normal” eating is really supposed to look like.

So, what is normal eating? The truth is, normal eating can look different for different people. Different areas of the world and ethnic backgrounds, varieties of personal food preferences, various food allergies/intolerances, and different schedules and lifestyles can all lead to distinct shapes that “normal” eating can take in people's lives.

It’s not an easy thing to ask a person to do but try to resist the urge to see the following as “rules” and instead look at them as guidelines and ideas to get you started. At the very core of normal eating is a sense for doing what’s right for you, and as mentioned before, this can be different for each person.

Normal eating is:

  1. Eating foods that are enjoyable and full of textures and flavors you really love. Food should taste good and you should enjoy it. If you aren’t enjoying your food or if you’re just putting your head down to make it through this diet, you are missing out on some of the greatest joys in life. Get creative with finding recipes, cooking methods and go-to meals that are both flavorful and nutritious. Finding the balance between a gentle concern for nutrition and eating foods that are rich and delicious is an important principle that normal eaters do intuitively.

  2. Eating a wide variety of foods. Some people eat the same foods each day. It can be for ease of planning or for some it’s a security blanket to stick to the foods that feel safe. Normal eating involves variety and a willingness to try new things. Normal eaters can expand themselves and don’t limit themselves to a small handful of specific foods.

  3. Enjoying foods without guilt. Feeling guilty about something implies that a person has done something morally wrong. Is food a moral issue? If you eat a brownie, are you a bad person? No. Often, when people can let go of feeling guilt associated with certain food choices, their eating behaviors and food choices actually improve. In other words, letting go of food-associated guilt can actually help you eat more nutritiously.

  4. Eating when you’re hungry and stopping when you’ve had enough. We were all intuitive eaters as children. If you ever have observed a little child with their food, it’s easy to see how they are so good at this. Three-year-olds can be given a freshly baked chocolate chip cookie and enjoy it completely and then stop halfway when they’re done. Kids are often very good at listening to their body. This is precisely what normal eaters do — honor their hunger and fullness.

  5. Occasionally recommitting to health goals. It’s normal to go too many days not eating enough vegetables. It’s also very normal to have a few days where you struggle to pack a lunch, eat out too often, or indulge a few too many times. Recommitting and reconnecting with what makes you function and feel best is part of what “normal” eating looks like. Just because you have a few days where things get off track and you fall short of ideal, you shouldn’t feel like you need to give up on a healthy lifestyle altogether. It’s about progress, not perfection.

  6. Putting some effort and forethought into the food planning and preparing process need not take up the majority of your thoughts. Normal eaters take some time and effort to ensure there are healthy and satisfying foods on hand for meals and snacks. Healthy eating requires some effort and planning, but normal eaters don’t spend most of their day thinking, dreaming or obsessing over food.

  7. Trusting your body to make up the inherent mistakes involved in being human. A normal eater is able to have a meal where they overeat or a treat they indulge in but are able to move on with their life, trusting that their body will do what it needs to do to regulate weight and health. Although we’d all love to honor our hunger and fullness each time we put a bite of food in our mouth, it’s not realistic to expect perfection. Instead, adopt an attitude of trust with your body not only to communicate its needs and wants, but also to allow you to be the right weight for you if you do your best.

The bottom line is this: trust yourself. Take one or two of the points above that resonated with you and see how you can start to become more “normal” with your eating. Move away from diets, restriction, food guilt, shame and self-loathing and come back to listening and trusting your body and its innate and wonderful ability to communicate its needs.
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