As a psychologist specializing in treating eating disorders, I get a lot of questions about food and eating. Mostly people want to know if they’re normal.
Never ask a psychologist if you’re normal as the answer is almost always no.
Just kidding. Well, mostly.
In general, most of us have a lot of hang-ups around food. Is it any wonder? We are inundated with conflicting messages everywhere we turn. We’re told protein will kill our kidneys. Scare tactics are used to keep us away from sugar, or at the very least keep us feeling very guilty about our sugar consumption. And now there are good and bad carbs. Wait, wasn’t this what they said about fats?
And when it comes to eating, we need a manual just to know how to eat, as if humans haven’t been doing this very thing for thousands and thousands of years. Don’t eat after 7 pm! Cycle your carb-intake. There’s also a list of the ten foods you should never eat in the morning. Hint: they’re all breakfast foods. Of course, they’re all breakfast foods.
While there is always emerging research in nutritional and medical sciences that help us better understand the marvel that is the human body, unfortunately there are plenty of individuals and companies that misconstrue, misinterpret, and massacre research findings to support their beliefs and products. Marketing dollars and big social media followings provide a loud megaphone for getting these mixed-up messages out to us who, because we may feel confused about nutrition and self-conscious about our bodies, are particularly vulnerable to the messages shouted at us.
What is the message being shouted at us? Essentially this: “You can’t trust your body.” There are many variations of this message, but at its core the message is one that serves to erode our sense of trust and knowing in our own bodies.
The message is incredibly effective. It works in creating confusion, doubt, and lack of trust. As we become more anxious we adopt more rigid and controlling measures relative to eating and food. Eventually this becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy in which—if left unchecked—leads us to really not knowing how to feed ourselves.
You Are Not Alone
If this process describes you, don’t worry, you’re not alone. As a culture we are experiencing a collective neurosis around food and eating as evidenced by the mega-bucks dieting industry and simultaneous obesity epidemic. This is no coincidence. It’s no wonder we find ourselves asking what is normal when it comes to eating.
If the message being shouted at us is that we can’t trust ourselves and that the answers are outside of ourselves, I would propose that the solution is found by returning to ourselves by learning to trust our bodies again. This is a radical thought for many who can’t imagine letting go of control around eating.
Years ago I had a friend ask me what I recommend when it comes to overcoming the diet mentality. I told her about Intuitive Eating and discussed briefly that one of its premises is letting go of external control and instead learning to trust our bodies and our ability to feed ourselves. She walked away stunned. Several weeks later after reading the book, she told me “I’m just not ready to let go of the control. It scares me too much.”
Her experience is not unique. While there is much to hate about the diet mentality (rigidity, deprivation, misery, shall I go on?), we must acknowledge that it does bring a sense of control, a sense of knowing, a sense of “if I can do this, then I’ll be okay.” However, this is a mirage that disappears the further we travel on that road. Rather than leading to freedom and enlightenment, this path actually leads to obsession and fear that if we are not perfectly controlled we’ll blow everything and end up a big fat failure (with an emphasis on fat). Ultimately this path leads to feeling anxious and out of control, thus making us even more dependent on and desperate for the newest messages being shouted from fitness gurus.
Recently I had another friend text me after she began reading Intuitive Eating. She said it all made perfect sense, that she had always wondered how some women could eat bread and peanut butter without self-destructing. And while she has been working hard to reject the diet mentality for several years, she’s never felt she had an alternative that made sense and was sustainable.
What I said to my friend is the same thing I would say to you. Don’t look for one answer to solve all your hang ups around food and eating. Most of these issues developed over many years and are deeply entwined with our sense of self. Plus, our bodies are complex and we are each unique.
But, what intuitive eating can provide is a gentle guide toward learning to trust your body that is based on sound principles with good (and growing) research support. Mostly, intuitive eating is a rejection of the collective neurosis around eating. It reminds us that we can know how to feed ourselves. That we can learn to trust the cues we receive from our bodies and respond in kind, which usually—interestingly enough—means learning to treat ourselves kindly.
Intuitive eating does not equal unrestrained self-indulgence as that would not be taking good care of ourselves. But it also doesn’t mean restrictive deprivation. It includes learning to separate emotional hunger from physical hunger. It requires tuning into our bodies and our spirits in order to discover what within us needs to be fed.
So, What is Normal Eating?
So, back to the question I so often get: what is normal eating? Maybe it’s just semantics, but I prefer to think in terms of intuitive or balanced instead of normal. Somehow the term normal carries an air of judgment. And when it comes to this topic I think we’ve all had enough of that. (See how I just reframed the question? Psychologists are famous for that).
Balanced eating includes a recognition that eating is about sustenance and meeting nutritional needs. It’s about health and energy and vitality. Balanced eating knows we eat in celebration as well as in condolence, balanced eating is all about nuance, not rigidity. Balanced eating knows the body is trustworthy, even as the diet mentality creates body betrayal. It is forgiving without requiring repentance. Balanced eating is the healing our bodies and souls have been hungry for.
Forget about normal. Strive for balance instead.