Chapter 12: Striving to eat ‘normally’ again

How Can I Eat Normally Again?

Many people who have gone on and off different restrictive diets wonder whether they will be able to eat “normally” again. 

Exploring this concept of normal eating and being able to understand what it looks like is necessary for helping you to develop some short- and long-term goals around what you want to achieve from this program. 

Unfortunately, there is no exact definition of normal eating, because what is considered normal for you may not be normal for someone else (and vice versa).

Therefore, normal eating means what you want it to mean.

A quote to get you started from Ellyn Satter:

“Normal eating is going to the table hungry and eating until you are satisfied. It is being able to choose the 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 under-eating 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.”

It is not worth your time or energy comparing your eating patterns to other people, trying to assess and copy what others are doing to maintain what appears from the outside to be a seemingly normal relationship with food.

You will never know what is going on inside the mind of other people, how they behave in private, and how they truly feel about their body image.

For example, when I was at my leanest and binging in secret every weekend and then taking laxatives, people genuinely thought I was the “picture of health” and tried to model my “healthy” eating behaviours.

There are too many factors outside of your control to make an accurate and fair comparison. 

Instead, you first need to find out what normal eating means to you.

Then, once you have figured this out, you can work towards achieving this.

Although there is no standardized definition of normal eating, in the remainder of this section I want to help you identify some characteristics that could resemble normal eating to you, so that you have something to work off when coming up with your own normal eating definition. 

Characteristics of Normal Eating

Weighing food or counting calories are behaviours that are characteristic of strict and extreme diets. (I literally remember when I used to weigh my spinach leaves!)

These behaviours have the potential to lead to obsessions and preoccupations with food.

They are also incompatible with our busy lifestyles, and they prevent us from living a life full of spontaneity.

For example, many people who count calories or weigh their food avoid going out to nice restaurants because of the anxiety associated with not knowing the precise calorie content in the meals offered.

If this happens, then it is not normal eating.

It is normal to eat at regular intervals throughout the day. 

Normal eating might involve eating 3 meals and 2-3 snacks per day, spaced evenly apart. 

As you will soon learn, eating regularly is the most simple and powerful technique you could do to stop binge eating and other disordered eating behaviours. 

This pattern of eating is also beneficial because it can boost your mood, improve your concentration, and stabilize your energy levels. 

This third characteristic stands in direct contrast to diet culture.

Diet culture states that, for the most part, you must eat the same type and amount of food each day.

The human body is not designed to eat like this.

We are not machines.

Some days we might eat more than other days.

We should be able to modify the amount and type of food we eat each day based on how we are feeling, what our situation affords, and our current energy levels.

One unfortunate reality of diet culture is that the enjoyment that comes with eating is completely removed.

Eating, instead, becomes a means to an end.

It is normal to eat for pleasure.

It is normal to eat all of the foods that you enjoy from time to time.

Even though some of the foods that we most enjoy might not have the most nutritional value, they still serve an important emotional or social need that cannot be ignored. 

Honouring your body signals by allowing yourself to eat something that you are craving is considered normal eating.

It is important to be flexible in your thinking so that no single day means much on its own.

We know that it’s beneficial to us to try to consume an adequate amount of different vitamins, minerals, and nutrients to maintain good physical and mental health.

For example, in order to maintain good bone health, it is important that you consume a sufficient amount of calcium and vitamin D. However, if on one day your calcium intake is very low, your bones will not instantaneously crumble and you will not immediately develop osteoporosis.

The point is to treat one day among 30 others in a month, and one day among 364 others in a year.

Good health will work itself out over weeks, months and years, not days.

It is normal to have some days where vitamin, mineral, and nutrient intake are different from what you would usually have.

Having this mindset is normal eating.

Rigidity is a key characteristic of extreme diets.

Rigidity implies that there are a predefined set of food, eating, and diet rules that must be obeyed at all times.

This pattern of dichotomous thinking is one of the most important causes of binge eating. The black or white thinking – the all or nothing… sounding familiar?

Normal eating must be incompatible with this pattern of behaviour and thinking.

Normal eating must be flexible.

This means adapting your eating patterns according to your immediate social, emotional, and biological needs.

If you are able to accurately and reliably assess your needs on any given situation, then you are eating normally.

Finishing off the packet of cookies now because you do not want to be tempted to eat them tomorrow is a pattern of abnormal eating. 

Normal eating involves leaving some cookies in the packet because you will let yourself have more again tomorrow.

Normal eating is eating the whole packet just because they taste so damn good! (not because you need to “get them out the house so not to be tempted tomorrow”)

You do not need to clean out the cupboard now in fear of being tempted later on. 

Having your favourite foods in the house and giving yourself permission to eat them at any moment is normal eating. 

Other Characteristics of Normal Eating

Finding Out Your Normal

A crucial step moving forward is deciding what normal eating will mean to you.

If you do not come up with your own definition of normal eating, then you will not know what it is that you need to work towards in order to achieve your goals.  

Before moving on, try to decide what normal eating means to you. 

Think of as many characteristics of normal eating that you want to adopt. 

Write these characteristics down somewhere so that you can regularly reflect on them. 

This will also serve as an important motivational reminder for why you decided to participate in this program.