Why Is "Normal Eating" So Hard To Define?

Illustration for article titled Why Is "Normal Eating" So Hard To Define?

The Times Well blog points out a fascinating article on the question, "what is normal eating?" But why is that question so complicated — and why do we assume fat people have the wrong answer?


In a PsychCentral article, Margarita Tartakovsky quotes eating expert Ellyn Satter's definition of normal eating:

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.

Some of these things — eating until you are satisfied, for instance, seem so basic that it's sad we need permission for them. Others almost sound like sacrilege: it's really normal to eat because you are "happy, sad or bored"? Isn't that "emotional eating," something women do that sabotages them and makes them fat? Satter's definition acknowledges something few diet articles ever will — that having a piece of cake because you want it, or even because you're in a bad mood, isn't a stupid mistake only someone with no willpower would make. It's normal.

Contrast that with this advice Tartakovsky quotes from Fitness Magazine:

Make a plan and stick to it. Consuming the same simple, locally grown or organic foods week to week will help prevent you from resorting to last-minute fast-food (and unhealthy) meals. Avoid using treats, such as ice cream or other sweets, as a reward for a hard day.

Nutrition researcher David Katz, MD, won't overexcite his taste buds while trying to lose weight. ‘The more variety of foods and flavors you introduce, the more appetite is stimulated,' Dr. Katz explains. ‘If your diet resembles an all-you-can-eat buffet, you're going to eat a lot.' Dr. Katz also says that restricting meal options will help eliminate temptation. Redundancy is the safest bet.

Tips like this one — which basically boils down to "bore yourself thin" — may seem normal because magazines tout them so much. But eating to avoid exciting your taste buds is actually counterintuitive and difficult. Maybe one reason so many diets fail is because they ask people to eat in ways that are, frankly, pretty weird.

Of course, Satter's prescription for normal eating might not make people thin. But it probably wouldn't make them gain a million pounds either. The idea that you'll be morbidly obese if you let yourself eat until you're full, and don't beat yourself up about overeating occasionally, is based on an invalid principle: that fat people eat way too much of all the wrong things, while thin people carefully restrict all their food. Overweight people who don't live on a diet of donuts already know this. So why is America, which is now 66 percent overweight or obese (at least according to the CDC) still full of fat hatred?


In an article titled "America's War on the Overweight," Newsweek's Kate Dailey and Abby Ellin blame, in part, something called "the fundamental attribution error, a basic belief that whatever problems befall us personally are the result of difficult circumstances, while the same problems in other people are the result of their bad choices." They also quote Marlene Schwartz, director of the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at Yale University, who says, "A lot of people struggle themselves with their weight, and the same people that tend to get very angry at themselves for not being able to manage their weight are more likely to be biased against the obese." Interestingly, her research shows that young women, who may experience the most weight pressure, have the most negative thoughts about fat people.

But there's yet another explanation for America's rage against the overweight. According to psychologist Ryan Martin, "People actually enjoy feeling angry. It makes them feel powerful, it makes them feel greater control, and they appreciate it for that reason." Dailey and Ellin mention snarky Internet comments, one of the most popular mediums of fat hatred — and also, perhaps, one of the easiest ways to gain a feeling of control with no consequences. When Tara Parker-Pope of the Times Well blog asked her readers what they thought normal eating was, they were actually pretty well behaved. But one commented,

As long as "registered dieticians" and registered politicians subscribe to the "I'm OK; you're OK" school of health, our population will get fatter and fatter. Personal responsibility? It's so passe.


And another added,

Clearly the "norm" in America is to overeat to the point of degrading health by consuming excessive amounts of salt, fat and sugar and insufficient amounts of complex carbohydrates. The article seems to be much more a discussion of what "feelings" about eating are desireable rather than what would lead us to eat in a manner that is desireable from a health standpoint.


Discussions of food tend to make emotions run high, here as everywhere. But we'll risk it — do you agree with Satter's definition? What does normal eating mean to you?

What Is ‘Normal' Eating? [NYT]
America's War On The Overweight [Newsweek]
What Is Normal Eating? [PsychCentral]



One thing that makes a normal eating hard to define is that what "feels" right can be so variable, even in the same person.

I've always eaten intuitively, I make healthy choices because I actually love fruits and vegetables and I don't deny myself treats. At the moment, this means I'm a little overweight.

However, at some point in my life, I went on a pretty rigid diet (healthy, but strict) and lost a lot of weight. I then resumed my normal intuitive eating habits and kept that weight off for a long time. I still ate what I wanted, but my *appetite* was so changed after dieting, how much I wanted was different.

I think I only gained the weight back because I was so in awe of my new body that I pushed the bounds of what that body really wanted. I was surprised to eat a candy bar and not wake up fat the next morning and it became an almost a morbid curiousity - what will TWO candy bars do? I've stretched my appetite back out and, now, eating "normally" results in a different shape than eating "normally" did before. But it feels the same to me - so how much is really normal?