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What Does Normal Eating Mean to You?

by nina on November 19, 2010

normal-eatingA few years ago, in the midst of my eating disorder, I remember having a moment where I saw a work colleague go down to the local cafe, grab a hot chocolate, a few slices of toast and casually take bites and sips of her breakfast while she was talking to me.

This girl was thin, attractive, intelligent and most importantly – a normal eater. I studied her eating habits very closely throughout our years of working together. I kept looking for signs of an eating disorder. I followed her into the bathroom, I had dinner out with her to observe her choices and indirectly asked her a few questions about her eating.

Much to my disappointment, I never discovered any signs of an eating disorder with this colleague. Nor did I ever see her put on weight or eat strictly “healthy” food. I, on the other hand, packed my brown rice and tofu lunch every day, only to hit every bakery shop on my way home. I was in the midst of an eating disorder and this girl taught me a lot about normal eating and helped me (without knowing) to get to the freedom that I experience today around food.

One of my posts about treating eating disorders received a great comment the other day from Brittany, which I will share here:

What does it mean to be a normal eater? As someone that suffers from an eating disorder I have no idea what it would look like to eat normally. What does it mean for you?

I have agonized over this response. Not wanting to say the “wrong” thing, doubting my answer, second guessing and terrified that I don’t have the “right” or “perfect” answer. Until I realized that this is exactly what my eating problem once was, and why I struggled for so long to become a “normal” eater. I was terrified of being “wrong”, always trusted someone else’s plan more than my own and was a slave to perfectionism.

Karly Pitman nails this issue of desiring an external plan in an article on The Rules for Normal Eating:

In some ways, following a rigid eating plan would be easier. Freedom is frightening (Will I get fat if I eat carbs? If I can eat whatever I want, will I eat ice cream for breakfast, lunch and dinner?) But giving myself choices is what ultimately removed wacky food obsession from my life. Many experts on food addiction, overeating, and eating disorders share my belief that learning how to eat intuitively is what ultimately cures negative beliefs about food.

I could not comprehend that I knew how to be a normal eater, that I could trust my own body and there is no such thing as the “right” way to eat. So what normal eating means to me is the following:

  • I eat things that I like
  • I stop when I feel full
  • I eat when I am hungry
  • I am able to identify hunger
  • I only think about food when it is time to eat
  • Once the meal is done, I never think about it again

This is honestly the way that I eat and live today, after years of following someone else’s diet or recovery eating plan. I trust my body today and my weight has not deviated with any significance in the last 3 years.

In a fantastic interview, Healthy Eating During the Holidays by Margarita Tartakovsky, MS with the authors of the Diet Survivors Handbook, Judith Matz & Ellen Frankel, they say:

“eat when you are hungry, eat what you are hungry for, and stop when you feel satisfied.”


For so many years, I believed that normal eating was something that was off limits to me, that I would never be a normal eater. But it is something that I wanted so desperately and fought my way to recovery and now consider myself a normal eater.

Believe it can be done. When you believe something can be done, really believe, your mind will find the ways to do it. Believing a solution paves the way to solution.
Dr. David Schwartz


What do you think normal eating means? What does it mean to you? Share your thoughts!

Nina Vucetic

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{ 11 comments… read them below or add one }

colleen schulte October 27, 2011 at 12:24 am

Thanks so much for your continued support and answers. I’m working at learning to eat intuitively but sometimes don’t pay attention and eat without thinking about exactly what I want or what I’m actually eating. I feel like I have to be on “full alert” all the time to remain “aware” of my hunger cues. If I don’t really pay attention, I end up not eating what I really want but instead eat what’s in front of me or readily available.
My biggest problem are the ED thoughts about my weight. I just “hear” ED all the time and am having such a hard time because I really don’t feel like “me” at this weight (I’m about 50 lbs over what is a healthy weight for me).
Working on my eating disorder is complicated right now by a family crisis too–my mom has a terminal disease and probably only has weeks to live. I don’t want ED to roar back in while I’m trying to cope with this. ED’s been “louder” lately which scares me.
I feel like my thoughts and this e-mail are kind of jumbled (I know that’s ED too) but I know you understand what this feels like. Nina, thanks so much for being there.


Colleen December 17, 2010 at 3:07 pm

I remember that I did the same thing in my early years of recovery. In particular, I had a co-worker who I observed eating normally, and it made me realize that I didn’t have to adhere to rigid eating plans that eventually backfired. I have been able to maintain my weight with no significant fluctuations for the past 22 years while keeping meals in perspective as you outlined above. One nice thing that I’ve noticed over the years is that I can look forward to a special meal if I’m going to a restaurant or someone is preparing my favorite food and truly enjoy it without obsessing about it. I’m able to really enjoy food without all of the guilt and fear associated with it.


admin January 20, 2011 at 3:24 pm

Hi Colleen,
I think it is so important to model the successful behavior that we want for ourselves. It really helped me a lot to be around people who were “normal” around food. It made me see that it was possible to just eat what I actually felt like and that it wasn’t such a big deal.
I’m so glad you are able to appreciate good food without obsessing about it and feeling guilt!


admin December 10, 2010 at 4:33 pm

I love your suggestions Wendy.
That was exactly what I did – I asked friends who I thought were “normal” eaters about their eating patterns, hunger signals and what food they ate. This is not to say that I based my eating recovery on what others did, but it helped me open my mind to the concept of normal eating and to see what normal eaters do. It is really just about modeling successful behavior.


Wendy Sheppard MSW December 10, 2010 at 3:13 pm

I think when you’re first recovering from an eating disorder, it’s really hard to know when you’re hungry and when you’re full. I think doing what you did here, which you describe in this post, is a fantastic way to learn “how” to eat normal.

I think another way to learn how to eat normally is to find a support person to help you. Let them guide you in what is a normal amount of food to eat in a sitting. Let them set a schedule for eating and have them talk through why they set that schedule. Find out what it feels like to actually be hungry (if you can’t remember that feeling). Ask them how they know what the difference is between being hungry because you need food and being hungry because you want comfort. Ask them how they know when they’re full.

If you can, talk to a number of people, asking them the same questions. You’ll get different answers, but all of the answers should help you in learning how to identify your own hunger and fullness feelings. It should also help you learn how to define your own “normal” eating patterns – that along with the list the writer mentions above.

Normal eating is possible. It just takes some time to learn how to eat normally.


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admin November 22, 2010 at 5:04 pm

Thanks @Charlotte – I was totally confused about the concept myself. Would have laughed if anyone suggested that it was possible for me! I am so thrilled to hear that intuitive eating is working for you.
Your blog is awesome! You are brilliantly talented both as a writer and human being!


charlotte November 22, 2010 at 2:52 am

Brilliant! I agree with every word. The funny thing is, a mere year ago, I would have been the one completely stymied by the concept of normal eating. I’d been ED’d for soooo many years that I figured I would never know how to eat normal or even comfortably. And yet… I do now. It still blows my mind. Intuitive eating really works (both the books and the concept in general) and I feel such an amazing freedom now. I’m immensely grateful for this – I honestly never thought I’d get to this point.

And thank you for all the sweet comments on my blog over the last few days! You really made me smile:)


admin November 21, 2010 at 8:26 pm

@Brittany – Congratulations on your progress and recovery! It is all such a process and it can take time to tune into hunger.
Thank you for bringing up a very important topic!

@Joy – I’m glad you liked it! Yes it is definitely a struggle to find our own definition of what is normal or intuitive for us. I think it has a lot to do with trusting ourselves and our bodies.


Joy November 20, 2010 at 12:23 pm

Love this post–I too struggle at times to understand what a “normal” eater looks like. I loved your list–it’s inspiring! Great blog, I’m bookmarking it to read more very soon.


Brittany November 20, 2010 at 3:33 am

Thank you for this article! I’m sorry that I caused you to stress over your answer. I think you did a beautiful job answering my questions. Because of this site I am doing really well right now so I have to thank you for that. To me normal eating means all of the same things you wrote. The only thing I am missing now is the ability to only eat when I am hungry. Its a work in progress!


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