What is Normal Eating Anyway?
If you’ve stumbled across this post, chances are you’re questioning your eating habits or someone else’s. Whatever yours or your
friend’s behaviors are, you’re concerned that they’re not normal and that by society’s standards, you’re a bit of a weirdo. Well you don’t need to worry because you are certainly not alone! An overwhelming majority of us have experienced some form of disordered eating at some point in our lives. National surveys actually estimate that 20 million women and 10 million men in America will have an eating disorder at some point in their lives. But what types of eating habits qualify as an eating disorder or constitute disordered eating anyway?
Disordered eating is a complex and interrelated set of behaviors, thoughts and emotions. Disordered eating is not the problem. The problem is the problem, whatever that might be. Disordered eating is a coping mechanism or solution to that problem. But like I said before, you don’t need to worry, all hope is not lost! Because disordered eating is a set of behaviors you do, it’s also a set of behaviors that can be changed.
The clinical definitions of eating disorders such as anorexic or binge eater don’t capture the full range and complexity of people’s disordered experiences with food. The vast majority of people with disordered
eating would be termed “eating disorder not otherwise specified.”
Let’s take a closer look at some of the more commonly recognized categories of disordered eating.
tend not to eat mindfully. Instead, compulsive eaters eat without thinking about their actions, consuming entire bags of chips and packets of cookies without even realizing it, often in front of the TV or even in the car on the way home from the store – sometimes even when you’re in the store wandering up & down the aisles. Am I right?!
are triggered to eat in moments of emotional discomfort, automatically reaching for food in response to uncomfortable feelings. Soothing negative emotions such as stress, anger, fear, boredom, sadness and loneliness is common. After a row with your partner you might find your spoon hitting the bottom of a pint of ice cream, or maybe you even plan ahead and stock up on your favorite foods to eat as comfort for a night alone on the sofa.
tend to know a lot about nutrition already. They also tend to be on a permanent diet, rarely letting loose on their restrictive reigns. Food tends to fill restrictive eaters with shame, guilt and fear. You might find yourself anxious and overly concerned about the prospect of gaining weight. You tend to follow strict rules about how much you eat, what you eat and when and obsess over “sticking to the rules.”
Disordered eaters can also swing wildly from under eating to overeating. Have you ever found yourself barely eating all day & then gorging at night? Or severely restricting your food on weekdays and bingeing on weekends? Or even sticking to weeks or months of strict dieting followed by weeks or months of compulsive & mindless eating? In our experience with the
thousands of clients we’ve worked with, you will likely have identified with one of these categories or eating habits at some point in your life.
Suddenly “disordered eating” doesn’t sound so uncommon or abnormal, does it?
Even if you can’t relate, I’m sure you can think of at least a handful of people who have experienced periods of disordered eating in their lives, some who still firmly fall in that category and probably will for the rest of their lives.
Common mindset traits
1. Routines and rules
People with disordered eating may be routine-driven and have rigid food rules, such as:
- when they should eat (or not)
- what they should eat (or not)
- what foods are “good” or “bad”
All-or-nothing thinking is common, for example:
- “All carbs are bad.”
- “If I have one cookie, I’ve blown it, so I might as well keep
- “If I am not perfect then I am a failure.”
Or an “if, then” thought process may be common,
- “If I eat this then I am bad.”
- “I can only eat carbs after I have worked out.”
2. Cognitive dichotomy
Disordered eaters experience deep ambivalence about their behavior. Disordered eating is a coping mechanism that feels goodandbad. Disordered eaters often have the sense of the “angel and devil on the shoulders” — being of two minds, with one mind saying “No! Don’t eat that!” and the other saying “Hell yes! You deserve it!”
3. Negotiation with Reality
Have you ever had a cheat day? Or an occasion like a birthday or wedding where you’ve binged? You probably felt bad after and told yourself you needed to compensate by strictly adhering to cleaner eating or going on an
extra long run the next day. Do any of these thoughts sound familiar?:
“Tomorrow I’m starting a new workout plan so tonight is my last night to eat X!”
“I’ll work off all this extra ice cream with an extra long session in the gym
“Calories don’t count on the weekend, everyone knows that!”
This kind of negotiation with reality is known as “magical thinking”. Framing your eating habits in this way only serves to encourage disordered behavior towards food.
Having considered what disordered eating is and how it manifests, hopefully you are able to recognize that it is more prevalent & common than you might have first thought. As a disordered eater you are certainly not in the minority. In fact, I’d say normal eaters are in a distinct minority! So what is considered normal eating and what exactly do normal eaters do?
Normal eaters, believe it or not, do not spend their time thinking about food. I know that comes as a shock to the likes of you and me but it’s true! How much, how little, or how often a person eats does not define whether or not they’re a normal eater. What normal eaters have in common is that they don’t think of food in terms of “good” or “bad”. They don’t give food too much thought at all. Let’s take a quick a look at the 4 classic traits of normal eating as identified by psychotherapist Karen Koenig.
Traits of Normal Eating
1.Eat when you’re hungry
2.Choose foods that will satisfy you
3.Pay attention to what you’re eating & enjoy it
4.Stop when you’re full / satisfied
In short, you tune into your body’s signals that indicate you need food for fuel. Normal eaters therefore respond to their
hunger, stay connected to their taste buds and stop eating when they’ve had enough. Easier said then done!
In this day and age, normal eating is incredibly hard because our bodies are influenced by stimuli that our primal ancestors
weren’t. Here are some of the most common influential factors:
- Food intolerances/allergies (lactose, gluten, nuts)
- Processed sugar
- Excess salt
- Fat-free products
These stimuli affect cues & signals for hunger & satiety causing them to be misinterpreted by our bodies. How? Well without getting too scientific on you, the brain’s reward center is over-stimulated by processed sugars and our endocrine system (the system that controls our hormones) is deregulated by the lack of balance from foods in the western diet; not enough protein, too much fat, coupled with food & drinks that spike our blood sugar levels all throw our bodies completely out of balance. Our modern diet combined with an increasingly sedentary lifestyle, has put our bodies in to a state of confusion, causing us to gain weight (even when we’re not eating enough) and develop serious health issues such as hyperglycemia (high blood sugar levels), hyperinsulinemia (insulin resistance), high blood pressure and high triglyceride levels. All risk factors that increase our likelihood of developing heart disease, diabetes and stroke.
The confusion brought on by our diets effects us on a cellular level. Balancing our body’s intake of macronutrients is a pivotal part in correcting our bodies’ metabolic state. As Jason and I have found ourselves, we have been able to lose weight and improve our metabolism to the extent that we now consume double the calories we did than when we first started flexible eating (this is known as reverse dieting). Correcting our macronutrient imbalance has also allowed us to slowly reconnect with our internal sensory signals and, over time, develop nutritional habits that are considered normal eating behaviors – although we’re always going to love & obsess over donuts more than the average person!
If you need help with your nutritional habits, flexible eating is a great place to start. It is not necessarily something you will have to do for life, that choice is yours, but it will help you get your body back to a place of balance. A place where you are mindful about what you eat, with an approach and mindset that is not only sustainable, but also promotes wellbeing in a holistic sense. For additional resources and assistance with shifting your mindset and relationship with food, check out our Psychology Macro video package.
Eating Disorder Resources
Never be afraid to pursue professional help for an Eating Disorder. You are not alone.
Overeaters Anonymous – https://oa.org
National Eating Disorders Association – https://www.nationaleatingdisorders.org
Eating Disorder Screening/Online Self-Diagnosis – https://www.nationaleatingdisorders.org/screening-…
Eating Disorder Recovery – http://eatingdisorderrecovery.com/
Anorexia Nervosa & related eating disorders – https://www.anred.com