Diets are all we see around us, normalizing restrictive eating as a part of our everyday lives. So how do we get back to what it once was?


These days, it seems like everyone wants to put a label on their eating. Vegan. Paleo. Gluten-free. Clean.

And for those who do, they hear the constant reinforcement: “You must be a healthy eater.”  “I bet your diet is perfect.”

But what about those who just want to be ‘normal’?

Unfortunately, in our world of weight stigma, the thin ideal, and diet culture, normal eating has become abnormal. It’s hard to know what’s “normal” anymore because most people do engage in eating behaviors cultivated by diet culture in some form. Think about the 10 people you last spoke with today, and how many of them are trying to manage or lose weight. That should illustrate that point quite nicely.

Dieting has become normal eating, and is so prevalent that we often label concerning eating behaviors as normal. Skipping meals to save up for a big dinner. Normal. Avoiding entire food groups. Normal. Spending an hour each day tracking calorie intake. Normal. Clearly, that’s not the kind of “normal” eating that allows you to live life, freely and without judgment.

So, what is the type of normal eating to strive for?

Normal eating is going to the table hungry, and eating until you are satisfied. It’s about being able to choose the food you like, eating it, and truly get enough of it – and 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 be so wary and restrictive that you miss out on enjoyable food. That’s dietitian Ellyn Satter’s definition of normal eating, and I like it.

Normal eating may be eating something sweet every day, or a couple of times a week. Normal eating may mean eating a brownie (or two!) today, or leaving them on the plate because you know it will be available tomorrow.

Normal eating means eating out of hunger most of the time, but not always. Normal eating is occasionally drowning your sorrows in a pint of Ben & Jerry’s, or mindlessly eating leftover stale donuts a coworker brought into work. You may feel a hint of guilt, but rather than saying “to hell with it,” you are able to look at the situation objectively and brainstorm a better way of dealing with the trigger in the future.

Because there will always be stressful days, and coworkers who like to bring in donuts.

Normal eating is nourishing yourself regularly throughout the day. It can be three meals a day, or maybe it’s 5 smaller meals. There may be busy days when you find you’ve gone too long without eating and feel ravenously hungry. There may be days where you just don’t have much of an appetite, and will miss a meal or snack. There may be days where you feel very hungry and eat more meals and snacks than usual. Some days you may miss the mark, but for the most part, you’re giving your body what it needs.

Normal eating means adapting to what food is available in the situation. Maybe that means eating at a restaurant you don’t like because that’s where your friends want to go. Maybe that means ordering takeout because you don’t have time to cook. It can also mean throwing a ton of random snack foods together to make a meal. Even though it isn’t super satisfying, you know you have plenty of opportunity for tasty meals in the future.

Normal eating means food is part of life, but it isn’t all of life.

Food may, or may not be an interest, but normal eating leaves room for other interests too. You can make decisions based on what you want and need in the moment, and based on what’s available to you so you can remain flexible.

Normal eating may value nutrient-dense foods for some meals because it is a form of self-care, but recognize that no one is morally obligated to engage in it for every single meal. There are many opportunities for nutritious foods – and plenty of fun foods. Both are okay because neither is good or bad – it’s just what feels good and right at that time.

Normal eating balances out “mistakes” in eating over time, so they aren’t really mistakes. And finally, normal eating is knowing food isn’t your enemy. It’s about knowing that food is there to nourish your body, and your soul.

Because food is your friend, an ally who is there to support you in living a good life.

Adapted from the original article.

Rachael Hartley, RD, LD, CDE is a private practice dietitian, food enthusiast, and nutrition expert based in Columbia, SC.  By guiding others to rediscover the joy of nourishment rather than deprivation, Rachael helps men and women alike improve their health and well-being through delicious whole food recipes and practical advice through intuitive eating.

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