In a country obsessed with body image, chronic disease, health care, food shows, fast food, vegan and raw food diets as well as high protein diets and supplements, one can’t help but wonder what is “normal” eating?

What does it feel like to eat for the purpose of nourishing your body but without worrying whether or not we nourished properly? How many of us eat mindfully with a true appreciation for the food, where it came from, how it was prepared and how it will make us feel while not considering if it is raw, organic, high in fiber or causes weight gain?

Frankly, in developed countries, I doubt there are many who can eat without regard for some consequence. If we don’t ask, we can’t always be sure that the meat we are about to eat is grass-fed, that the vegetables were grown without pesticides, that the added fat is “heart healthy.” We simply don’t know unless we investigate every time we eat at a restaurant or at someone’s house, every time we buy groceries or visit a new food purveyor. Each and every time we eat, we take a chance.

We have taken all the fun out of eating, all the reasons that food and festivities go hand in hand: the celebration of the harvest or the holiday, the joy of the bounty, the merriment of new life, the commemoration of a loved one passed. We seem to eat most often simply because food is readily available for consumption, because it is our right to eat what we want, when we want.

If we think too much about eating, then certainly we are not eating normally. Does that mean that all concerned citizens have an eating disorder? Some of us are overly apprehensive about our health while others are completely aloof. Maybe we all have experienced disordered eating for either not caring or caring too much.

A recent New York Times article struck a chord with a fellow dietitian, and I can see why. The writer stated that she did not have an eating disorder immediately after listing her “no-no” foods which in essence included anything with a carbohydrate content above 5 grams. She wrote about making an egg and flaxseed bread that resembled canvas. She later admitted to relaxing the rules and allowing herself to eat French fries but only the French fries that touch the burger, not the outliers. She will eat the pizza toppings, not the dough except for the crust, but not the part her fingers have touched. I can’t even follow that trail.

She goes on to admit that her plate looks like something a toddler picked over, but it’s the way she eats “and as labor-intensive as it is, it beats having to exercise.” Since when is exercise a punishment for eating? Let me just clarify that both eating and exercise are meant to be enjoyed and neither should ever feel like a death sentence. When they do, then it’s time to re-prioritize your goals.

As a dietitian, I teach people to make better food choices that go hand-in-hand with their goals, whether to lose weight, lower cholesterol, reduce inflammation or simply for the sake of making healthier choices. I help clients see the connection between food and emotions as well as health. Like most people, I grew up using food for comfort, but the more I learn about nutrition and myself, the better I am able to eat for the sake of nourishment. But sometimes I just really want to enjoy some chocolate ice cream. So I enjoy it, no guilt, no rules, just pure pleasure.

My favorite definition on “normal eating” comes from Ellyn Satter, a dietitian who with her 40 years of experience is a renowned expert on eating and feeding:

“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 under eating 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.”

However, to define “normal eating” is actually kind of ironic. Shouldn’t we all inherently be experts?

To learn more about eating for all kinds of reasons, please visit Elizabeth’s Web site at www.TheKitchenvixen.com.

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