Last week, I addressed the topic of normal eating and suggested replacing the term normal with balanced or intuitive eating. Normal eating connotes the idea that there is one right way to eat and can sometimes carry an air of judgement. On the other hand, balanced eating is more focused on moderation and flexibility rather than rigidity. 

Eating is highly individualized. What we eat and how we eat are impacted by upbringing, ethnicity, cultural influences, health issues, personal preferences, religious beliefs, food exposure, and experiences. And sometimes our food choices and eating behavior are shaped by body image concerns, fear, and anxiety.

It would be silly to expect that there is a right or wrong way to eat, and yet at the same time there are some behaviors that most of us agree are odd, strange, or simply not normal. For instance, I’m reading Steve Jobs’ biography right now, which is fascinating on so many levels. But one of the things I’ve been struck by is his strange eating patterns. At one point in his life his skin turned orange because the only thing he was eating was carrots. What?!

Balanced Eating

While most of us would agree that a diet based solely on carrots is unbalanced, how do we know if our eating patterns are balanced, odd, or downright crazy? First of all, let’s pin down balanced eating. Balanced eating is an approach to food selection and eating that takes into consideration nutritional needs and food preferences. And it strives to find balance between these—sometimes competing—demands.

Balanced eating includes not only awareness of, but also respect for hunger-fullness cues.  Balanced eaters learn to recognize the physical cues of satiety. Then gently but consistently strive to respect those cues by picking up or putting down the fork in response to fullness cues.

balanced eatingBalanced eating also recognizes that eating is about more than just meeting nutritional needs. It is about connection, celebration, and so much more. Balanced eaters do not deny themselves of these opportunities for connection, and have an inherent trust with their bodies that recognizes such eating is an important part of life. And balanced eaters understand the body will know what to do with the food with no need to obsess.

Balanced eaters recognize the difference between emotional and physical hunger and find ways to meet emotional needs that don’t involve food. This recognition develops over time through understanding self, recognizing hunger-fullness cues, and developing self-care strategies.

Balanced eating does not draw attention to itself. It is flexible, it is relaxed. There is not anxiety. Instead there is trust. Balanced eaters don’t need to know every ingredient in a dish, they don’t need to obsess about what the food is doing in, and to, their bodies.

While there is so much more to say about balanced eating, hopefully these thoughts can at least get you started on thinking about your relationship with food, eating, and your body.  Intuitive Eating by Tribole & Resch is an excellent guide for developing a more balanced approach to eating.

Unbalanced Eating

Let’s think more specifically about what qualifies as unbalanced eating.  Below is a list of behaviors to consider as you think about your own approach to eating. While you may recognize some of the items as cause for worry, you may be surprised at other items on the list. Sadly, too many of us accept the diet mentality as the way to eat “normal” without fully appreciating the significant costs of this approach. (Namely loss of trust with the body, slowed metabolism, weight gain, loss of hunger-fullness cues, anxiety related to eating and food – to name a few).

If you notice that several items fit for you, consider how you can challenge or change the behaviors by taking a more moderate approach. Some items involve changing the specific way you eat while other items include challenging your fears and worries relative to what or how you are eating.

As you note some items that may fit for you, consider the time and energy they take up. For instance, have you altered plans based on your eating? Have you had loved ones or friends complain about behaviors? If behaviors get in the way of functioning well or connecting with others, they may be worth your consideration.

Also consider how much mental real estate behaviors or worries may be taking up for you.  If you find yourself spending a significant amount of time or energy worrying, obsessing, or fretting about food, you can be sure it’s taking up too much of your mental real estate.

One item on the list may cause this kind or worry, or several items on the list may be responsible. Regardless, consider the impact these worries or behaviors have on daily functioning. Are they getting in the way? Are you making more accommodations due to anxiety? Do your worries intensify? Are behaviors getting more extreme? Do your loved ones believe these behaviors are getting in the way?

  • Fear or worry about food, eating, or weight gain
  • Obsessive calorie-counting
  • Adherence to a strict diet and intense guilt if there is deviance from the diet
  • Ongoing attempts to lose weight
  • Intense guilt about eating sweets or items “not allowed”
  • Eliminating food groups not for a validly diagnosed medical condition
  • Eating in response to emotional upset
  • Eating a large amount of food in a short period of time to point of stomach upset
  • Avoiding social gatherings where food may be present
  • Intense guilt due to overeating
  • Eating to calm or soothe self
  • Refusing to eat out
  • Engaging in self-induced vomiting to purge self of food
  • Using laxatives or diuretics in response to eating
  • Eating in secret
  • Chewing and spitting food
  • Chronic calorie restriction or restraint
  • Avoiding specific macronutrients, such as fat or carbohydrates
  • Use of cleanses, “detoxes,” and other methods to rid body of “impurities”
  • Eating the same foods day after day
  • Fear of food variety
  • Moving food around the plate without actually eating
  • Refusing to eat in response to physiological cues of hunger such as lightheadedness, hunger pangs, or headaches
  • Inability to identify hunger and fullness cues
  • Anxiety in response to unanticipated food situations
  • Worry about holiday or family gatherings where food is central to the celebration
  • Refusing to stop eating in response to feelings of fullness
  • Excuses such as “I’m not hungry” or “I already ate”
  • Refusing to eat in front of others
  • Dieting as a way of life
  • Cutting food into tiny pieces
  • Refusing to sit at a table to eat a meal
  • Loss of pleasure with eating
  • Refusing to eat in response to hunger
  • Picking apart food
  • Feeling proud or self-disciplined for refusing to eat
  • Adhering to strict rules about food consumption (i.e., certain times, limited calories, specific foods)
  • Drinking large amounts of water with meals
  • Punishing self by refusing to eat
  • Eating food very slowly or very quickly
  • Eating while standing up or on the move
  • Restriction of water or fluid intake
  • Eating while distracted
  • Refusing to eat snacks or treats
  • Fasting regularly
  • Chewing gum to avoid eating or to manage hunger pangs
  • Judging foods as either good or bad

The list is not meant to diagnose, shame, or judge. Rather, it’s an opportunity for self-assessment. Take an honest look at the items and see if there is value in challenging or changing some of your views on food and eating. Perhaps small tweaks could be helpful or more structured changes are in order.

So, a balanced approach to food is all about moderation and flexibility. It is also about gentleness and self-awareness, so use this as an opportunity to learn more about yourself and gently move towards more balance.