When I think about having a normal relationship with food (by which I mean a relationship that's mostly uncomplicated by diet culture's rules), I think about housemates I used to live with when I was younger.
Back then, when I was struggling with my body image, I was always envious of the girls I lived with. Unlike me, they had healthy relationships with food: They ate when they were hungry, they left food on their plates when they’d had enough. They didn’t step on the scale…at all. They ate what they wanted and what they enjoyed: spaghetti and meat sauce, brownies that someone’s mom baked, a bowl of ice cream. To my knowledge, my housemates didn’t feel guilty about anything they ate (and if they did, they never, ever talked about it). I don’t think they ever counted calories, restricted food, or went on a diet. When I talked to them about my eating struggles, it was difficult for them to relate. I don’t think thoughts of dieting or body image ever even occurred to them, or at least not in any kind of persistent way. I remember that one of my housemates would leave half-eaten bags of candy in her room, and I wondered how in the world she didn’t feel the urge to plow through it all at once, like I would, or at the very least, how she resisted any urge to, like I’d have to. My housemates just ate, and it was so normal.
And by the way, when I say “normal,” I just mean making decisions about food that come from your own feelings, desires, cravings, and needs, as opposed to external rules.
This many years later, after becoming a dietitian and living and learning, here’s what I know: Normal eating has everything to do with our relationship to food, and nothing to do with our actual diet. Everyone’s diet is different, but normal eating isn’t the food we choose, it’s how and why. Normal isn’t the same as healthy, or some version of “calories in vs calories out.” It doesn’t mean eating tons of vegetables, or complying with any “official” nutrition recommendations. It’s about our emotional relationship to food and eating.
“Normality” can be a strange, subjective concept. But what I’m talking about is what you see in healthy babies and young kids. After all, we are born as normal eaters. If you ever watch a baby or toddler eat, they choose what they want, and only if they’re hungry. When they’re full, they stop. They listen to their bodies and eat accordingly. This behavior is innate, but many of us lose our connection to it as we get older because of outside influences. It sounds strange, but if you’re a chronic dieter, you might not even remember how to eat according to your internal cues. After being inundated for years by fad diets and fear mongering around food, we develop fear, guilt, shame, suspicion, and anxiety about food and eating. This impacts our perception of what eating normally is.
People who have been on restrictive diets with long lists of rules have often lost their natural hunger and fullness cues, because they rely on calorie counts, schedules, meal plans, and devices to tell them when and how much to eat.
They allow what and how they think they should eat to influence them over what their bodies are telling them. And to be clear, I don’t think individuals are at fault for their eating behaviors or should be blamed for somehow failing to be “normal.” And I don’t mean to pathologize or criticize ways of eating that are not what I’m calling normal. (It’s tough to talk about this without using words that inherently assign value, so I want to be clear about what I mean.) We’re all doing the best we can while we’re absolutely flooded with messaging about how we should eat.
I spoke to Kim Tanzer, M.S.W., R.S.W., a Toronto-based psychotherapist and owner of This Messy Life about this. She says when we diet, we ignore both our bodies’ cues and the pleasure that comes from eating: “Dieting makes it is all too easy to ignore our bodies’ messages; we override hunger or disregard satiety. When we go on a diet, we very often sacrifice the pleasure that food brings to our lives.”
When people hear I’m a dietitian, they always say something along the lines of, “Oh, you must have a really healthy diet!” But my diet probably isn’t what people are thinking when they assume it’s healthy. For example, I sometimes eat a lot of cake, enough that my stomach starts to hurt. When that happens, I move on without punishing myself for overeating. I understand that a cake binge once in a while won’t harm my health, and I let it go. I’m a normal eater, most of the time.
When I’m sad, I tend not to eat very much at all. Once I’m happy again, my body makes up for the food I didn’t eat, and I don’t even have to try to overcompensate. And once in a while, I have a day or two where I eat zero vegetables. I’m fine with that: I eat more than enough of them on most other days. This is what I’d call a healthy relationship with food, or normal eating.
But “healthy” is complicated, subjective, and sometimes problematic word.
I’m not as concerned with whether or not people have healthy diets as I am with whether our relationships to food and eating are healthy.
So, what are the features of normal eating? It’s tough to define exactly, but I think it’s made up of a few different components, some of which are about our eating behaviors, and some that have to do with our attitudes about food and eating. To me, normal eating is:
- Eating when you’re hungry and stopping when you’re full, most of the time.
- Sometimes eating because you’re sad, or because you’re happy, or bored, or because the cake looks good and you’re not hungry, but you want some.
- Not beating yourself up about eating in way that diet culture says is “too much” or “bad.”
- Understanding that you are not what you eat and you’re not defined by your diet (or your weight)
- Understanding that food isn’t the enemy, or something to be feared or controlled.
- About trusting your body and honoring your hunger and fullness cues
- Taking advantage of meaningful food-related experiences and social interactions such as eating local foods when you travel without stressing about how many calories or carbs they contain.
Going back to Tanzer, she says that normal eating is tuning in and learning to trust the body’s wisdom. It allows for, and respects, the ebb and flow of appetite and varying food choices. This ebb and flow means we are flexible in our approach to eating and allows for the enjoyment of food and appreciation of a healthy body.
Life and mental health are better when we can enjoy food and eating, and the social and emotional aspects around these things. Paying attention to what your body wants and needs is far more important, and a lot more enjoyable, than any diet.