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What is ‘normal eating’?

In a society that is constantly dieting, it may be hard to define what constitutes "normal eating." Ellyn Satter, RD and family therapist, has a beautiful definition - the golden words are "positive" and "flexible." Normal eating "varies in response to your hunger, your schedule, your proximity to food and your feelings." Based on her thoughts, here are some ideas on how to eat "normally:"

Come to the table hungry and eat until you're satisfied. Having a somewhat structured eating schedule allows your body's hunger cues to do their job – letting you know when to eat and when to stop. Satiety is controlled by hormones released in response to the digestion and absorption of nutrients. However, it can take 15-20 minutes for the brain to collect all those signals and broadcast the "fullness" feeling. If you take the time to enjoy the taste of the food you're eating, your body will be able to send timely signals letting you know when it's had enough.

Choose food you like and truly eat enough of it. Someone once told me that the only bad food is spoiled food. Other than that, all food can be part of a normal, healthy diet. Normal eating is fueling your body with nutrient dense foods that optimize health and well-being while leaving room for your decadent favorites. It's just cruel and unusual punishment to forbid yourself a reasonable serving of your favorite foods like ice cream and chocolate. It also sets you up for failure when you likely succumb to seconds (or thirds, fourths, etc.) of a helping of something decadent. Normal eating is not restricting yourself just because you think you should.

Give yourself permission to eat just because. Eating can be emotionally soothing, like after a breakup or bad day at work. It can be joyful when you share an indulgent dessert with your close friends. It can be fun to pop handfuls of buttery popcorn into your mouth in a movie theatre. If you are able to acknowledge that the purpose of your eating is NOT to satisfy a feeling of hunger and you are capable of enjoying that meal or snack without bingeing, there is no harm in eating even when you're not actually hungry. Sometimes.

There is no perfect number of eating occasions. Everyone's ideal schedule may be slightly different, so while one person succeeds with three meals a day, another thrives eating 6-8 times a day.  Take a little personal survey:

  1. Do I feel satisfied after a meal?

  2. How soon do I feel hungry again after a meal?

  3. Am I physically hungry, or is my drive to eat based on a craving, habit or emotion?

Trust your body to make up for your mistakes in eating. Sometimes you will eat a lot and feel stuffed. Sometimes you miss lunch because you're insanely busy at work and you are starving. Your body is amazing and it can balance your occasional erratic eating.

Know that normal eating requires some of your time and attention. It absolutely takes some degree of thoughtful planning to make sure you have nutritious foods to cook and recipes to prepare. Diet rules, however, shouldn't dominate the majority of your conscious thought, nor should they make you feel like you're on culinary house arrest.

Normal eating means that on Christmas you eat cookies for breakfast because it's part of a family tradition. Or you have an extra slice of pizza because you're down the shore and Manco & Manco has the world's best slices. But most of the time, you're prioritizing whole, nutritious foods that make your body feel good. How and when you think about food at any given time changes. If you feel like your thoughts fall more in the disruptive or disordered category, help is out there. Food does not need to take over your life!


Read more Goal Getter for healthy eating, weight loss and more.