What is Normal Eating?

One of the things that irks me about the dietetics profession is how frequently food is labeled as ‘bad’, ‘good’, or even ‘super’. It can leave people with lots of mixed feelings about food and eating. Many popular diet plans applaud restricting food or even eliminating entire food groups. Often we’re led to believe that there is a definite ‘right’ way to eat and that we are unhealthy if we don’t follow it.

As an RD, of course I support a healthy eating pattern: a diet of fruits and veggies, whole grains, lean protein, and heart-healthy oils (olive, canola, etc.) And we can’t eat unlimited quantities of food all the time.  But I think that there is room for some flexibility and I worry that with some of the rigid messages about “eating do’s and don’ts”, too many of us end up with feelings of guilt and uneasiness about food. We may be eating healthy foods, but sometimes our relationship with those foods is anything but healthy.

I believe that part of healthy eating and normal eating is the enjoyment of food. It means feeling good about what you eat – even if it’s not a veggie or so-called ‘superfood’. It means listening to your body and allowing your taste buds to have a vote on what you eat.

Recently I came across a definition of normal eating from Ellyn Satter, a well-known RD and expert on children’s nutrition.  She writes:

“Normal eating is going to the table hungry and eating until you are satisfied. It is being able to choose food you like and eat it and truly get enough of it—not just stop eating because you think you should. Normal eating 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. Normal eating 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.

I love this definition of normal eating. Perhaps some RDs would disagree and find this too permissive, but I am a big proponent of this type of eating flexibility.  Sure there are some people who follow a ‘rigid’ diet that eliminates all treats, sweets, and indulgences (think: deluxe cheeseburger).  And that’s fine, as long as they are happy with their food.  But in my observation, too many of folks are trying to be perfect (and not succeeding) and feeling not-so-good about food and about themselves as a result. When I look at other cultures, say French or Italian, they tend to have more of a permissive attitude toward food. At the same time (although overweight/obesity is growing in those countries) they do not have anything close to our rates of obesity, heart disease or diabetes. So maybe cutting yourself some slack next time you have a slice of cheesecake could be perfectly “normal”!

What do you think? What is YOUR definition of normal eating?

— Katherine


  1. says

    Many years ago I created a scale of eating behavior called “Functional Food Systems”(1). The top level, “optimal eating”, represents ideal eating that some of us can attain under perfect circumstances. I can manage this a few days a year, mostly restoring at a retreat with no responsibilities or distractions. It is wonderful but not my real life.

    The second level of “adequate eating” represents as an approach to food that allows me to meet my needs on a day to day basis. It allows for choices that work well enough in most circumstances, including when I want to enjoy a fabulous treat. It allows for the inherent challenges in navigating food in busy and sometimes difficult circumstances.

    Adequate eating requires skill, self regulation and resilience. Adequate eating is possible when someone is willing and ready to actively manage their food environment. These critical attributes are often weak or lacking in many people as they attempt to address food and nutrition issues. No wonder the rigid structure of diets is seductive.

    The lower three levels of Functional Food behavior include rule-bound “Mid-range Eating” that is preoccupied with good and bad foods, the yo-yo dieting of “Polarized Eating”, and the disassociated chaos of “Dysfunctional Eating”. These levels illustrate more typical ways that many people struggle in their relationship with food.

    My goal is to help clients develop needed skills, as well as the capacity for self regulation and resilience, as they cultivate an approach to food that works for them. The individual’s readiness and willingness to change is core to the entire process.

    (1) The scale was adapted from and mirrored a scale of family function explored by psychologist, Maggie Scarf’s.

  2. says

    I’m with you Katherine! I’m so glad to read your post. As an RD, I believe it is my job to help people take care of themselves, not be their police officer or judge. They do that enough for themselves. I like to think with my counseling using intuitive eating and mindfulness I’m actually helping people “free themselves” from the “jail” they are in. It can be challenging if you struggle with emotional eating (I have) to really trust your body again and trust that it really is OK to not eat perfectly healthy and sometimes get too full… very important is the “drive” that led to that choice… was it positive pleasure and celebration (usually followed by satisfaction) or reacting and coping with uncomfortable / bad feelings (usually followed by guilt). Helping people get in tune with what is going on and how they choose to change their habits is so rewarding. It’s an honor to do my job. Don’t ya think?


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