If you have a complicated relationship with food, you may have noticed that you tend to fall into some sort of extreme, at least most of the time. You may overeat for weeks at a time, only to find yourself trying to “make up” for those extra calories by undereating and overexercising in the weeks following. You may eat super “healthy” for long stretches of time only to have it backfire and lead to binge eating spurts.
You might find yourself having a lot of black and white thinking around food or needing to control your food intake very strictly. Other people making food for you might stress you out or not having access to foods that you feel “safe” with might cause stress for you.
If any of this sounds like you and you are trying to go from a disordered relationship with food to a more natural or normal one, you may find that you feel a little rigid about what you think that is. Since our relationship with food has been very strict or extreme, we tend to want to attack “normal” eating the same way.
But normal eating is anything but rigid, strict or extreme. It’s actually the opposite.
Normal eating is:
- occasionally eating more than our bodies need.
- occasionally eating less than our bodies need.
- eating for pleasure.
- eating just because something tastes or looks really good.
- eating because we are hungry.
- eating sometimes because we are bored, tired or having a rough day.
- eating food that you desire.
- eating foods that give you energy.
- eating until you’ve had enough.
- eating nutritious foods and also less nutritious foods sometimes.
- not judgemental or very rigid.
- flexible and adaptive to day, the seasons, your schedule, environment and mood.
- permissive. You can eat whatever you want or need and nothing is off limits.
- not full of shoulds or shouldn’ts.
- listening to and eating according to your fullness and hunger signals on a regular basis (but sometimes overriding them).
I know this can be confusing, right? On one hand, we hear that overeating and emotional eating are problems (and I even work with the population who struggles with these things). Or that undereating is a cause for concern. Or that we shouldn’t eat whatever we want whenever we want.
The difference between “normal” and abnormal eating
The difference between “normal” and abnormal or disordered eating from my perspective (remember I am not a therapist and do not give out medical advice) is in what we make this stuff mean (for example: “I am a bad person for eating this.”, “I am going to get fat from eating that ice cream.” etc) or the frequency with with we engage in these behaviors and thoughts. Overeating or undereating occasionally is not a problem. Doing those same things daily or for long periods of time (or bouncing back and forth between the two in extreme ways) is likely an issue. Inflexibility is another hint that something is off. It is not normal eating if you refuse to eat before you know the amount of calories in something. It can be normal to want to eat nutritious food most of the time but it’s not normal to never be willing to eat something that isn’t 100% for nutrition.
Another clue that eating strays from normal is if we have any physical or mental health issues developing because of our eating habits. Also, our own perception is a big clue to whether it’s normal or abnormal (though there are lots of people with eating issues who are unaware that they are doing anything abnormal). Does it “feel” like your eating is not normal? Do you find you think too much about what you “should” or “shouldn’t” eat? Do you make judgements about yourself if you eat too fullness or eat junk food? Does eating make you feel stress? Do you avoid social situations where food may be involved?
It’s entirely normal to sometimes overeat and sometimes eat for emotional reasons but when you find yourself always doing it or responding to it with harsh measures of retaliation it has entered disordered territory. Eating for pleasure is wonderful and a completely normal part of life but when eating becomes your sole pleasure in life or you don’t allow yourself to eat pleasurable food, it can be an issue. As a side note, you don’t have to be diagnosed with an eating disorder to have an unhealthy relationship with food or to not be eating normally. There is a huge spectrum of what is normal and what isn’t.
A final note if you want to work on eating normally: Be cautious about labeling food or yourself as good or bad based on what, why and how you eat. Watch out for guilt, shame, rules, judgements or retaliative measures about eating – they never lead anywhere good! Be wary about how much of your thoughts or energy go towards thinking about food. It’s one thing to plan healthy meals to make your week easier, it’s another thing to obsess over it or freak out if you have to get take out one night. It’s one thing to look forward to a delicious upcoming meal, it’s another thing to have it be all you can think about.
You are supremely knowledgeable about your own body and her needs. Believe this! If you feel like you are really far removed from knowing what is “normal” eating anymore, let’s hop on the phone (schedule a discovery call with me here). Coaching a helpful and non-threatening way to explore what is going on in your life, find out your motivations and make lifestyle changes with judgement free support (all in a way that helps you get back to listening to yourself!).