Eating means something different to everyone throughout their lifespan. Some people view food simply as fuel for their body. Others take pleasure in enjoying every bite. Some mindfully eat every bite, while others stuff food in to cope with their feelings. Some people are filled with anxiety while eating and have a fear that eating what they want will make them gain weight.
Ellyn Satter, dietitian and child feeding expert, writes the best definition of normal eating I've read:
"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."
This is the key to mindful eating. It's up to you to decide what foods you truly would like. You have the power to listen to what your body is asking for, but re-learning this takes time. You may be craving certain foods for a biological or emotional reason.
If you're craving sweets, it could mean that you are undereating during the day and you truly need to eat MORE food (and stop dieting). It could also mean that you're turning to food because you're bored, lonely, stressed, sad, or other emotions. By tuning into your hunger and fullness cues, you can re-learn when you're hungry and when you're choosing to eat for emotional reasons.
Children have this innate wisdom. If you have a child, you may know that some days they just don't eat much at all while other days, they eat all day long. Their energy needs vary by their age and activity level, and over a week's time, they are usually able to regulate their food intake. Some days, they eat more, but they can make it up by eating less other days. They're not in the "Clean Plate Club" and are totally okay with leaving food on their plate uneaten. Adults may feel a bit uneasy about that because we've been taught to not waste food.
Get Started: Hunger and Fullness Cues
You can start to tune into your hunger and fullness cues by taking a moment before and after meals to rate your hunger and fullness. Before a meal, rate your hunger on a scale from 0 to 10. After a meal, use rate your fullness. You can use this scale to notice if you're physically hungry, or eating out of boredom or emotional eating.
Following your hunger and fullness cues does not mean you can't eat when you're not hungry or full. Normal eating is flexible. If you have a late meeting won't have the chance to eat dinner until 10 pm, you may want to eat early at 4:00, even if you're not hungry. If your friends decide to stop for ice cream after you eat a satisfying lunch, you may choose to enjoy an ice cream, or you may choose to say, "no, thank you."
Trusting Your Body
Normal eating requires you to trust your body to let you know what it needs. Diets take away that trust and give you a set of food rules to follow. If you have been on fad diets all your life, you may be used to following foods lists of what to eat and what to skip.
Trusting your body again means you can once again eat "forbidden foods" and know that you will not gain weight from one piece of chocolate. Trusting your body means knowing that you can feed your body fruits, vegetables, and chocolate. It means respecting your body enough to eat enough calories (way more than 1200 calories a day!). It means planning for success with grocery shopping and food preparation but not thinking about food 95% of the time.
You should not have to live your life in worry, fear, or guilt. You can live a vibrant life full of memorable experiences, regardless of your size, shape, or weight.
What is normal eating to YOU? Share your thoughts below!