“I just want to eat normally,” Sara said when we were discussing my weight loss program and her goals. But when I asked her what that meant, she couldn’t really put it into words. 

We googled “What is normal eating” together, and I was struck by the long list of results. Obviously, this is a common search phrase. 

As I skimmed through some of the results, I realized that most had similar definitions and thoughts on normal eating. One of the main takeaways for me is that “normal” eating has nothing to do with deprivation, or monitoring every bite you take, or thinking obsessively about food. And it certainly doesn’t center around guilt and beating yourself up for what you’ve eaten. 

So many women I work with tell me that one of their primary issues with food is the guilt they feel. Every January, I am flooded with calls from women who feel out of control, anxious and angry at themselves for the way they handled their eating during the holiday season. 

One of the things I ask them is what good is that guilt doing them? Does it motivate them to eat differently? Not one of them has ever said yes. And when I ask about deprivation, calorie counting and the like, I get similar feedback. These things just don’t work when trying to maintain a healthy weight. So why do we continue to torture ourselves with these approaches?

What would happen if we could all flip that internal script, and begin looking at eating in a different, healthier way? I think that’s the need Sara was trying to express. And the first step in that process, I think, is to come up with a clear definition of what we mean when we talk about “normal eating.”

The top result in that google search was one of the best I came across. It was nutritionist Ellyn Satter’s website, and on it was a document titled “What is Normal Eating.” 

In this document, Satter talked about eating until you feel truly satisfied, rather than stopping when you think you “should.” 

She wrote about giving thought to nutrition without being so restrictive that you miss foods that could bring you joy.

Normal eating, she said, is allowing yourself to eat for any emotional reason from time to time. And choosing to eat at specific mealtimes or to graze throughout the day. 

It’s normal, she added, to overeat or undereat sometimes.

Perhaps my favorite section was this:

“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.”

Copyright © 2011 by Ellyn Satter. Published at www.EllynSatter.com.

Why do I love that section so much? It’s because it allows for mistakes – which we will all make. It gives importance to intentional food choices, while reminding you there are so many other critical things to attend to. 

But most of all, it dispels the myth that there is just one right way to eat. It will change, from person to person, and from moment to moment. Our needs don’t stay stagnant throughout our lifetimes – and that includes what our bodies need for nourishment. 

Making our eating patterns the sole focus of our lives is a recipe for disaster. There are so many complex factors that impact our food choices: culture, tradition, emotions, trauma, stress, society. And then there’s this simple reason – some things just taste good! 

When we tell ourselves there are “good” foods and “bad” foods, we’re setting ourselves up for failure. Although it’s true that some foods nurture our bodies while others, when consumed in large quantities, will harm it, moderation is really the key. A little bit of something you love might just do more good than harm!

Likewise, beating yourself up for the choices you’ve made does far more harm than good. The guilt and angst you put yourself through creates stress, which creates elevated cortisol levels, which can lead to all kinds of hormonal imbalances that make losing weight and feeling good nearly impossible!

Growing up in Australia, I rarely gave food a thought. But when I moved to the US at the age of 11, everyone around me talked about it all the time. I became hyper aware of my own weight, and for decades I have watched other women do the same. I’ve seen firsthand the damage it does not only to physical health, but mental health as well. 

That’s why I have devoted so much time to helping women learn healthy ways of relating to food, natural ways to lose weight, and how to keep weight off. For more information on my comprehensive weight loss course, click here

I printed out Satter’s document and told Sara to hang it where she would regularly see it. I wanted to remind her that what’s normal for one woman may not be the same for another, but we can all benefit from shifting our thinking about eating and what our eating patterns mean about us. Because the truth is, our choices at any given moment don’t mean anything about how worthy we are. 

That’s why I help guide women toward healthy balance and healthy attitudes about food. These, more than any one choice, will allow you to live your best life!

Related article: Are You Really Hungry? Try These 10 Tips to Break the Cycle of Emotional Eating