Many people consider it “normal” behavior to anxiously monitor their weight every day, to worry about their amount of exercise, to obsess about whether to eat dessert. But is a lifetime of guilt about food and weight really normal? Is this how we want to live our lives? Is our physical appearance the only way we measure our success in the world?
First, let’s look at examples of what is NOT normal eating:
- Lauren complains that her eating was “good” all day, but she ruined it with some cookies after dinner.
- Elizabeth cries that she cheated on her diet because she never counted the calories of the milk she added to her daily coffees.
- Stacey goes to a party, overeats, feels guilty, and then starves herself the next day.
- Pamela doesn’t want to go to the movies with friends because she didn’t exercise that day and feels “too fat.”
- Shari binges on a pint of ice cream and makes herself throw up.
- Lauren, Elizabeth, Stacey, Pamela and Shari all feel inadequate, unhappy with themselves which affects their mood, their self-esteem and increases the self-critical voice in their heads.
Here are examples of what normal eating could be:
- Lauren has cookies after dinner, enjoys them, knowing that normal people do eat cookies sometimes and they will not ruin her life.
- Elizabeth realizes her habit of picking on herself for every little “transgression” never really helps. In fact, it often backfires, and she throws in the towel by eating everything in sight.
- Stacey goes to a party, overeats, recognizes she doesn’t like feeling overstuffed, and the next day goes back to eating when she is hungry.
- Pamela realizes she will feel isolated and deprived if she doesn’t socialize with her friends, goes to the movies, and returns to exercising when she has the time and energy.
- Lauren, Elizabeth, Stacey, Pamela and Shari have all grasped that they are human, that sometimes they overeat or under exercise, that life (and eating) is generally not perfect, and they move on from there, living their day to the fullest.
So, what are the rules to normal eating? First of all, there is no one set of rules that applies to everyone. Developing normal eating is an individual process based on your appetite, weight, metabolism, lifestyle, and activity level. And what’s normal for you can even change day by day!
Sometimes I want three meals a day and snacks, some days I want all my food to be breakfast food, sometimes I don’t want breakfast, sometimes I want a midnight snack, sometimes I want a ton of salad, sometimes I want a juicy hamburger with lots of ketchup.
The key to normal eating is tuning in to what you want to eat when you are hungry for it and stopping eating when you are full. The key is to be flexible rather than rigid or judgmental.
For some people, even identifying if they are hungry can be a complicated process. Sara, a patient of mine, presented this unusual story, “I can never easily identify what I’m feeling, be it hunger or any other emotion for that matter. I realize where this comes from. The other day I was with my father and I told him I was cold. Dad said to me, ‘No. You’re not cold.’ Most people would say, ‘You’re really cold? Well, I’m not.’ But my father informed me what I was feeling as if he were inside of me and knew better than I did. I realized how often he has instructed me in the past what I was feeling. Dad would say, ‘You will want to join the basketball team in school.’ ‘You don’t really want to go out with that boy.’ He made me confused about what I truly want. No wonder I’m bulimic – I can’t figure if I want to keep the food or get rid of it, if I want it inside of me or out, if it’s my wish to eat or someone else’s wish, if a food is good or bad, if what I want is good or bad!”
Sara’s story illustrates the complex journey of developing a sense of self, of knowing and owning your own private feelings. This is the first step towards becoming a normal eater.
Normal eaters are able to separate their food from their feelings, their eating from their emotions.
They generally view food as food, not as a way to relieve stress, or a method to cope with unhappiness, or a means to soothe uncomfortable feelings. They enjoy food and don’t think of it as good versus bad.
Normal eaters generally adhere to six simple steps:
- They eat when they are hungry.
- They eat what will satisfy them.
- They stop eating when full.
- They face feelings directly rather than detouring them through over or under eating.
- They express their emotions directly rather than stuffing down on food.
- They don’t beat themselves up if they overeat, undereat, or gain a couple of pounds but rather take it in stride as the normal ebb and flow of life.
Nobody becomes a normal eater overnight. But you can begin by making slow changes by following the above steps. If you accept that progress, not perfection, is your goal, you will alleviate the stress of your relationship with food and come to live in better harmony with your body and your eating.