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.
Some of the things I interpret from Satter’s description:
- normal eating is being aware of hunger and satiety signals
- eating foods you enjoy without guilt and shame
- eating mostly nutritious food but having flexibility to include foods purely for pleasure
- being aware of the emotional drives to eat, and allowing for them without guilt or shame
- there is no one ‘right’ meal pattern – eat when works for YOU and your needs
- being able to indulge without the compulsion to binge
- eating to support your energy needs over time – with flexibility to eat more some days and less other days as your appetite and activity dictate
- not obsessing over ‘slip-ups, cheats and mistakes’
- not fixating on food and eating to the degree that it impacts your quality of life
Getting from here to there can seem like an insurmountable task though, especially when your ‘normal’ is following arbitrary, restrictive rules that someone else made up. Many very wise people have written about working toward Intuitive Eating (I linked to Ellyn Satter above, there is also Geneen Roth, Gwyneth Olwyn (who’s website I link to fairly regularly), the good people at Eat More to Weigh Less and others, all of whom bring very valuable insight to the table. The recommendations I make here echo many of the recommendations of these other people, and I encourage you to explore their websites and publications.
I’d like to begin by referring you BACK to the first installment of this series, and reiterate the importance of seeking medical treatment if you have symptoms of disordered eating or malnutrition. Refeeding can be dangerous, even life-threatening, if your body is in a state of starvation. Medical supervision is necessary.
Many people, however, are not starving, they simply have a history of unnecessary restriction and unstable eating patterns. The goal here is to get out of the restriction mindset and stabilize your eating habits. I’m going to give you some guildelines to do that. The first order of business is stabilization. You may or may not lose weight here, you may even gain a little. I’ll discuss some of the normal stages of recovery in the next installment of this series. Weight change is not our initial focus, stabilization is. Once your eating and weight are stable, we can begin making small changes, if you want to change your weight. Again, our first task is stabilization. Some people stabilize in a few weeks, others take months, much is dependent on your history and health. The more extreme your dieting history, and the more unstable your health, the more likely it is that you need to be working with a treatment team.
So, here are some guidelines:
- Acknowledge that there is an appropriate number of calories that your body needs to support your activity and a healthy weight. I talked about the fatal flaw in the ‘calories don’t matter’ paradigm so common in the fad diet world, and the very serious consequences of eating too few calories in my Adrenal Fatigue post here. Your body needs calories, and probably more than you realize, to support a healthy weight. Many fad diets short change you in the calorie department. A calculator that factors in your activity will give you a more realistic idea of your calorie needs than many of the calculators on dieting websites. Some of the best I’ve found are this one at Fat Secret, the Health-Calc here, and Scooby’s calculator here. If you’ve been dieting all your life, the numbers you see here will probably surprise you. Determine your calorie requirements, and eat to support them. It doesn’t have to be exact every day, but aim for a window near the figure the calculators give you. That way you will be supplying your body the energy it needs to meet the demands of day to day life. While eating intuitively is a goal, many people have lost touch with their hunger and satiety signals. Being aware of calorie intake can be a stepping stone toward reconnecting with those signals, by guiding proper portion sizes and ensuring adequate nutrient intake.
- If you’ve been restricting for a long time, ease your calories up. Many ED professionals recommend adding 200-300 calories every 3 days or so until you reach your required intake. I’ve known people who’ve added calories as slowly as 25 calories per day per week, which I think is unnecessarily slow. I think it’s important to get to an adequate intake as soon as possible. 100 calories per day per week seems to be a good half-way point. So for example, you’d eat 1600 per day for a week, then 1700 per day for a week, then 1800 for a week, etc, until you get to your target. If you’re in treatment, follow your treatment team’s advice. Some people begin eating to their requirements right away, and I think this is probably best if you haven’t been highly restrictive.
- Eat foods you want to eat*. Yes, seriously. Lift arbitrary restrictions. Some people believe that if they allow themselves to eat what they want, they will eat nothing but junk food. Some people DO eat nothing but junk food for a little while. The vast majority of people very quickly realize that eating nothing but junk food gets tedious, and their energy flails, and they begin to crave more nutritious foods. Every now and then a person comes along who really can eat nothing but junk food indefinitely – I believe that these people are dealing with disordered eating issues that require professional treatment. Most people enjoy a wide variety of foods including many that are very nutritious. Eat what you enjoy! Nutritious and indulgent, there is a place in a healthy diet for both. *If you are allergic to a food, that would qualify as a medical reason not to eat it. Avoiding foods that make you sick is obviously a reasonable ‘restriction’.Likewise, if you have a medical condition (such as Diabetes) that necessitates a specific dietary approach, work with your doctor and a Registered Dietician to implement that diet. Do NOT rely on ‘nutritionists’, diet books or bloggers for medical treatments.
- Pay attention to how your body responds to the food you eat. This is really the only way to evolve into a way of eating that supports your unique goals and needs. Does it fill you up? Does it give you energy? Does it make you feel good? Bad? Do you LIKE it? Diet Culture has created many food villains, but there are very few foods that are inherently bad regardless of context. Even refined sugar and processed foods can be beneficial under some circumstances, such as recovery from starvation and malabsorption issues stemming from GI conditions, and as fuel for intense physical activity.
- Get enough protein. This is really the only ‘food rule’ I follow, as it seems to be generally true across the board. If you are physically active, if you are recovering from restrictive dieting, if you are trying to lose weight…any of these conditions and more will increase your protein needs. The current DRI recommendation is quite modest, only .66 – .8 grams of protein per kg of bodyweight per day, but there is some indication that this is inadequate, and sports physiologists have long made higher recommendations. 1.3 – 1.8 grams per kg of bodyweight per day is probably a more realistic goal, and if you are engaging in strenuous activity or losing weight, increasing to 1.8+ grams per kilogram of bodyweight per day will probably be beneficial. I simplify this for my American clients by giving them a target of 1 gram per pound of bodyweight per day; this is more than they absolutely need, but few people actually meet that target, and aiming that high tends to ensure that they do meet their minimum requirements. Get your protein from protein rich foods you enjoy. If you eat mostly plant protein, you will need to eat a little more to ensure your body is able to get what it needs as plant protein is slightly less bioavailable. This doesn’t make it inferior, it just raises your intake requirements. There is nothing wrong with using a protein supplement if you’re having trouble getting enough from food alone. I give some tips for choosing a good protein supplement here.
- Be patient. Changing your habits takes time, and there will be starts and stops and plateaus and mistakes along the way. These are all part of the process. It can take months, even a year, to see major changes, especially if you’ve been very restrictive in the past. Work toward consistency, balance and stability. That is the goal in the beginning: consistency, balance and stability. Weight change will come later, and it will be easier when you’re consistent, balanced and stable.
- Move away from guilt and shame. They have not served you in the past. They serve no purpose now. Allow for mistakes and setbacks, not as things to avoid, but as things to learn from.
- Find a supportive community. Knowing that you are not alone, and that what you are going through is normal, is one of the most profoundly empowering gifts you can give yourself. And later, down the road, you can be there for others beginning their journey.
Escaping dieting is not easy, and it’s not always pleasant. It’s probably one of the hardest things you will ever do. In my next installment, I’ll discuss some of the normal physiological responses to refeeding. Some are wonderful, others can be downright awful. You don’t have to go through it alone. Many of us have been through it and can offer perspective and support.