Normal eating explained
“Normal” eating does not have one agreed-upon definition, but rather, it is a healthy and adaptive pattern of eating that encompasses many features, such as: (1)
- Eating when you are hungry and continuing to eat until you are satiated (satisfied)
- Engaging in moderation, meaning you have a balance of eating nutritious foods and foods that give you pleasure
- Trusting your body knows what nutrients it needs
- Permitting yourself to eat because it is an enjoyable activity
- Choosing food you enjoy, as opposed to foods that are approved by various diets or false beliefs about eating
- Eating three meals per day or eating smaller meals throughout, as you feel hunger
- Acknowledging the ebbs and flows of eating—occasionally overeating or undereating at times
- Acknowledging eating as one important facet of your life without taking up too much time, attention, or focus
- Avoiding restrictions, rules, or other rigid practices
If you eat “normally”, then you have a healthy relationship with food and view it as a pleasurable experience. “Normal” eating may not look the same for everyone, based on their individual needs, cravings, and preferences. But no matter who you are, every instance of “normal” eating is intuitive.
Intuitive eating as a key component of “normal” eating
Intuitive eating involves listening to your body’s innate hunger cues and eating according to those cues—also known as body wisdom. When engaging in intuitive or “normal” eating, you eat when you’re hungry and stop when you are satisfied. This also works for specific types of foods. If you are craving salt, you may end up eating some French fries or mixed nuts or pretzels. Conversely, if you are craving something sweet, you may choose to eat some fruit or cookies.
The most important component of intuitive eating is that you are listening and tending to your body’s needs. You are the expert on what your body needs, not anyone else.
This practice may be easy for some people who have been unknowingly engaging in it throughout their lives. However, some people may find it difficult to eat this way, especially after internalizing cultural messaging related to diet culture, weight stigma, and healthism.
“Normal” eating inherently involves intuitive eating, since both patterns of food consumption are related to listening to your body, being flexible with what you eat, and eating for pleasure. Additionally, intuitive eating encourages people to value their energy and health and how they feel over how they look. Valuing energy and health (real health, not “health” related to body weight or shape or size) over physical appearance helps you listen to your body and adapt.
For example, if you feel sluggish after eating a certain meal, you may choose to eat a different meal that provides you with energy the next time. If you have been physically active, you may be hungry for a large quantity of a specific food to replenish your body adequately. Or, if you have to get up early and will not be able to eat lunch until later, you may choose to eat a big breakfast consisting of foods that will fuel your body for a longer period of time.
Combatting a preoccupation with food
Those who engage in normal eating tend to think about food to the extent that it gives them joy and energy—both very important things, but they don’t obsess over food throughout the day and night. They may get very excited for a delicious meal they’ve been anticipating, but they don’t allow food to overshadow other important parts of their life, such as friends and family, hobbies, work, passions, and traveling.
Conversely, “abnormal” eating may involve a significant preoccupation with or obsession over food—what kinds to eat, what to restrict, how much to eat, when to eat, etc. Food, preparing food, and eating end up taking up a significant portion of energy, time, and emotional investment. “Abnormal” eating is filled with “shoulds” and “shouldn’ts, “good” food and “bad” food, “junk” food, and “healthy” food.
“Normal” eating means you can be flexible about food options and consumption. You can find something to eat at a buffet. You feel comfortable meeting your friends out at various restaurants. You don’t have to prepare or know what types of food will be available ahead of time (unless you have an allergy or medical condition). You don’t spend time compensating for food eaten by engaging in excessive exercise. You don’t convince yourself that you need to “earn” a meal, because you think you deserve it. It’s being able to meet a loved one out for ice cream without a second thought about it.
This flexibility is extremely important, especially because so much of our lives is already centered around decisions. Our brains can easily get exhausted and overwhelmed by having to make too many choices, such as:
- What time to get up
- What clothes to wear
- When to shower
- When to will see friends and family
- Whether there’s time to call someone on the way to work
- Whether there’s time wait in line for coffee or not
- What night is best for a date
- When to hire a babysitter
- Whether to save money or buy something
- Which errands there’s time for
- When to schedule appointments
The list goes on and on. Life can sometimes seem like a series of thousands of decisions. Being able to be flexible about meals takes some of the pressure off of eating and ultimately allows you to enjoy the experience more. Admittedly, this isn’t easy for everyone—many people struggle with disordered eating behaviors.
What is “abnormal” eating?
“Abnormal” eating is also known as disordered eating and involves a pattern of irregular eating behaviors that could become dangerous or escalate to a full-blown eating disorder.
Disordered eating involves maladaptive eating behaviors, such as: (2)
- Binge eating
- Skipping meals
- Using diet pills
- Using steroids
- Self-induced vomiting
- Using laxatives or diuretics
- Avoiding a certain food group or type of food
- Eating only very specific foods
- Having rigid rules about when to eat or not eat
- Avoiding eating with people
- Eating in secret
- Hoarding or hiding food
Disordered eating is not the same as an eating disorder, which is a severe and debilitating mental health disorder, but it is a major risk factor for developing an eating disorder like anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, and binge eating disorder.
Disordered eating is strongly linked to shame, guilt, and feelings of failure, especially in those who are often restricting themselves or following a fad diet. They may feel intense shame when they eat forbidden food or “cheat” on their diet. They may attempt to avoid situations in which food will be present, which can lead to isolation and social withdrawal. Without intervention, these behaviors can escalate in severity and frequency, leading to an eating disorder.
How to practice “normal” eating
While “normal” or intuitive eating may not come naturally to you, there are some things you can do to unlearn the harmful behaviors you've internalized and embark on a healthier, happier relationship with food. Here are some helpful tips on practicing “normal” eating: (3)
- Listen to your body’s hunger cues and eat when you feel hungry
- Nourish your body with adequate protein, fats, and carbohydrates so it functions properly
- Give yourself permission to eat whatever food you desire, since restricting only leads to binging later on
- Focus on the pleasure that certain foods provide you and revel in that pleasure
- Tune into your body’s signals while you’re eating, so you can learn when to detect fullness and how to honor it
- Acknowledge that you were given the body you have, learn to treat it with dignity and respect, and appreciate it for all it does for you
- Find self-compassionate ways to comfort yourself when you are feeling distressed or upset
- Reject diet culture and its harmful messaging
- Reject the bad/good binary related to food consumption because no foods are inherently either
- Engage in movement, choosing exercise you like to do
- Acknowledge that you don’t have to eat perfectly to be healthy and that a few meals cannot make you unhealthy
If you find you are struggling to engage in “normal” eating behaviors, you may need professional help. Eating disorder treatment programs are available on an inpatient and outpatient basis to help you recover from an eating disorder or stop engaging in disordered eating behaviors. You don’t have to have a full-blown eating disorder to benefit from treatment. In fact, early intervention can help you develop a better relationship with food before your disordered eating develops into a severe condition.