What is normal eating?

Would I love an answer to that question or what. After a decade of anorexia, I can tell you that I really have no clue what "normal eating" is. And the other fact is that, after taking a good, hard, look around me, most other people don't, either.

A World of Psychology blogger asked this very question: What is normal eating? The answer, it seems, depends on who you ask.

I like the definition from Ellyn Satter used in the blog post:

“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.”

Satter may have told me to build a particle smasher for all of the fact that this definition helps me figure out how to eat normally. It's perfect as a goal to work towards and a philosophy to embody. But how do you get there?

I know my history of an eating disorder means full-on intuitive eating is probably not a good idea for me. I get depressed, I lose my appetite. I start losing weight, it spirals out of control. So meals are necessary, whether I feel like eating them or not. I certainly look forward to the day when I'm not thinking of food or weight all the freaking time. I don't know how soon it will come, or how long it will stay, but I really do want to think about something besides food. There aren't that many recipes out there.

Nor do I think there will ever be one definition of normal eating. We each have to define that on our own, from a non-eating disordered perspective. What is normal for me--either the types of food, the amount of food, the times and places in which it is eaten--may not be normal for others. That's okay. I think "normal eating" is mostly about learning to trust yourself and your body to tell you what it needs and when.

How have you started to define normal eating? Is there an aspect you're particularly working towards? An aspect you've come to master?

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Dandelion said...

In general: Start when you're hungry; stop when you're full. Eat healthy but allow "treats"! People with problems like binge eating disorder or anorexia may have to work harder to identify those hunger and satiety signals, but I think the basic concept is good:)

Katie said...

I just found your blog and I love it! I also am a recovering anorexic and I'm happy to know that someone else goes through the same thoughts as me. I always think of what is "normal eating" and I loved that quote you shared.
Thanks for having this blog :)

Tiptoe said...

I read that post and liked Satter's definition best as well. As you said, it is a good goal to work towards, though I'd say at times, I've certainly felt like it was unobtainable.

I think for me the biggest piece to normal eating is to lose the moral attachment I still hold towards certain foods. It's about gaining a "peace" with it valuing it as fuel, enjoying it, and trusting myself.

meg said...

I love this post....this is something I struggle even when I'm doing well and securely on the recovery path I just don't know what normal eating is supposed to be. It is such an illusive concept for me to understand/know/feel -- it helps to know I'm not the only one. I've had friends that have said, of course you know what normal eating is, just follow the food pyramid - if only it were that easy.

Anonymous said...

Satter uses a definition of what "eating competence" is in her scholarly papers that I find a lot more concrete than that blog description. Normal eaters are competent eaters (not "perfect eaters"!!!). These descriptions will hopefully serve as a good framework for growth once I become more comfortable with the "mechanical eating" required with a prescribed meal plan. Here are some of the qualities she highlights in her papers:

*Ability to tolerate hunger sufficiently to conform to the
social structure of meals and snacks.

*ConīŦdence that there will be enough rewarding food at structured eating times to satisfy hunger and appetite.

*Ability to eat in an intentional fashion, paying attention and responding to the internal regulators of hunger, appetite, and fullness.

*Ability to stop when satisfied.
*Comfort with the amounts eaten and the experience of satiety.
*Acceptance of the body weight that evolves from such internally regulated eating.

*Being calm in the presence of food, including unfamiliar and disliked food items.
*Being comfortable with eating preferred food, including food that is high in sugar, salt, and fat.
*Being able to pick and choose from available food, politely and matter-of-factly accepting or turning down
food offerings.
*Being able to settle for less-preferred food when necessary
to satisfy caloric or other nutritional needs.
*Being curious about novel food.

Kim said...

I've seen that quote before and that's my best definition of "normal eating" too. Like you, I really don't know what it means in my life. I've had so much energy about food for so long that I'm completely bewildered by the notion of just eating "what my body needs." I've also come to accept that intuitive eating may not be realistic for me for a very long time, if ever. Like you, if I'm depressed/anxious, I lose my appetite...and things spiral out of control. I'm ok with that. I'd just love to know what I FEEL like and what an adequate amount is for my body.

midoriliem said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
now.is.now said...

"Normal eating is trusting your body to make up for your mistakes in eating." That is the most meaningful part of the whole definition for me. It means that if I eat more one day, I don't have to feel bad about it - I can know that it's because I underate for the past bit. If I eat "too much" one day, I don't have to make some rule like "don't eat tomorrow" because my body can handle the bit of "extra" food. If I truly believed that my body will make up for my mistakes in eating, it would take a lot of stress out of eating and it would give me a lot more freedom.

Laurel said...

Normal eating for me would be to be able to sit down and eat without calculating how many kcals are there, and fat etc... and being able to share a meal with other people... a meal other than a dressing free salad. Normal eating for me would be eating because I feel hunger, not because my blood sugar just plumeted. But then again - just what is normal? Normal is what you make it right? There is no Webster's dictionary that defines the normal or status quo of everyting in life.
I love your blog, it is an inspiration

Eating With Others said...

Not a clue what "normal" is. I'm like you. If I try and be normal, I'll start cutting back, it used to be start bingeing but ED evolved and now I restrict. After a few meal's that are restricted I'll slip into a MP that is way lower than anyone should have. And then that becomes normal.

I want to work at getting to the day when I don't have to spend 8 hours a day or more thinking about food/calories or being hungry or too full. This is not life this is ED

Dandelion said...

Eating alone- if trying intuitive eating gets you restricting, then go with a meal plan. That way you don't have to spend every day thinking about how much to eat, hunger signals, etc.
If you go to this website, you can get the plan set up by the Kartini Clinic which treats eds:

Rachel said...

I have to echo the sentiments here that Satter's definition is spot-on. For me, normal eating is when I don't have to over-think or analyze what it is I'm doing. I realize I'm hungry, I fix what it is I feel like eating, and then I eat until I feel satisfied.

Tia said...

I'm using this in my blog today. thanks for the quote!

Anonymous said...

I read the column in the NY Times where that quote appeared, and I was just exasperated to read all the comments because most of them were a bunch of RULES. It's as though none of the commenters "got" the article, or even thought about it. In fact, I would probably define normal eating as "rule-free eating".

Carrie Arnold said...


Yeah, I saw the NY Times blog, too, and decided not to link to it for the very reason you mentioned.

And for what it's worth, if I had to judge intelligence based on comments received, my readers are way smarter than NY Times readers!

I think "trust" is a huge part of normal eating. I am on a meal plan right now where I eat at certain times, and eat a certain number of exchanges, and this helps get my body back into the "rhythm" of eating. And having my mom around to make sure I eat a wide variety of foods has helped expose me to foods I thought I didn't like or hadn't eaten in years. Some of the foods I've tried are definitely staying on the "don't like" list, others have a more fluid place. I like them--or I think I like them--even though I don't want to eat them all the time.

The odd thing for me is learning to trust that my body will make up for any mistakes in over-eating, but realizing that I might need to "help" make up for mistakes in under-eating. Maybe one day, I'll be more natural at this, but for right now, under-eating is so neurochemically reinforcing that it's hard to step out of the loop.

Dandelion said...

Carrie- That is a bit odd to wrap your mind around, but it's because of the overall pattern... Your body would also be able to self- correct for the occasional time of undereating, but when you're struggling with anorexia, you tend to consistently err on the undereating side... And it's that consistent pattern that overwhelms the body's ability to balance, though it tries its darndest- lowering its basal metabolic rate, lowering its core temperature, slowing transit through the GI system, even growing new hair to keep itself warm. You have to give the body an A for effort!:)

Angela Lackey said...

I struggle with this all the time. If I went by my own hunger cues, I would eat once a day, mid-afternoon. I would love to just eat when I'm hungry, stop when I'm full and not think about all the time! But I'm afraid anorexia has killed that in me, maybe forever.


Harriet said...

The other component of Satter's definition is joy. She describes the idea as "joyful, competent eating," and I think that really conveys a lot.

Full disclosure: She's a dear friend of mine!

Kate said...

This is a question I've been struggling with for the better part of a decade and I'm honestly not sure there is an answer.

First, it's easy for people to say "start when you're hungry, stop when you're full" but those sensations of hunger and fullness have to be learned and understood. Most people learn them in childhood, but when you grow up with an eating disorder, or with parents with disordered eating, those lessons and that understanding doesn't necessarily come through. In my recovery, I've struggled with learning how to accurately identify this, and I know I'm not alone.

Secondly, I'm not sure how many people actually have "normal" eating habits. There aren't many people I know who are willing or able to follow these guidelines -- whether it's because they've eaten a full meal and that chocolate chip cookie is just too tempting, or because they're grabbing something quick to take the edge off as they rush somewhere.

I think I would lean toward calling the "start when you're hungry, stop when you're full" approach "Ideal Eating" as opposed to "Normal Eating."

As far as the "joyful" component, that can be a quality of abnormal eating habits as well.

I Hate to Weight said...

i love the definition as well. i believe that if you stay on your current program (eating your meals, whether you think you want them or not), you will get to a place of knowing what you want, how much, when.

my eating is coming along. i have lots of time when i'm not thinking about food. i do think about my weight a fair amount but not all the time. life is much, much more peaceful. i used to think about food and weight ALL THE TIME.

IrishUp said...

I think of it this way; living creatures tend to homostasis. That is, for each system there is a comfortable/optimal range of conditions. Internal and external perterbations may move the individual out of that range from time to time, but the system will respond to move back into the normal range as soon as possible.

Programmers and Artificial Inteligence people call this fuzzy logic. The fuzzy logic of eating for humans is geared towards optimizing nutrition for the body's needs, social interactions, and personal pleasure.

"Normal Eating" is feeding oneself according to fuzzy logic. Disordered eating and eating disorders is feeding according to RULES.

It seems to me that Satter's work, and things like the Kartini Clinic's ordered eating plan, are successful because they mimic fuzzy logic sufficiently to serve as a bridge back to "normal" for those who have had their eating patterns become disordered.

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I'm a science writer, a jewelry design artist, a bookworm, a complete geek, and mom to a wonderful kitty. I am also recovering from a decade-plus battle with anorexia nervosa. I believe that complete recovery is possible, and that the first step along that path is full nutrition.

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