Have You Found Your Inner 'Normal Eater'?


By: , SparkPeople Blogger
4/12/2013 12:00 PM   :  347 comments   :  81,586 Views

One of the goals of making a “lifestyle change” (as opposed to going on a diet) is to develop a healthy relationship with food and eating that feels normal, comfortable, usually enjoyable, and relatively easy to maintain over time.

No elaborate eating rules, no worries about “good” foods and “bad” foods, no guilt feelings or verbal self-abuse for breaking the rules, no getting obsessed with weigh-ins or calorie counting, no restricting your social life so you can avoid people/situations that might make you blow your diet. Just a little common sense, some basic nutritional knowledge, and a willingness to trust your body to make up for your occasional dietary “mistakes” and balance out your calorie and nutrient intake over time to match your needs.

According to this article, this desirable state is called “normal eating,” and it’s something all of us can achieve by simply eating when we’re hungry, eating the things we like, and stopping when we’re satisfied.

But just how realistic is this notion, especially for those of us who struggle with maintaining a healthy weight? Can things really be this simple?

This approach also goes by other names, like mindful eating or intuitive eating. But the basic idea is simple: we’ve all got an innate, evolved appetite regulation system (or, if you prefer, an “inner normal eater”) that is capable of maintaining a balance between energy in and energy out over time, and predisposing us to eat and enjoy the foods we need for good health.

I don’t know about you, but a few years ago, when I weighed almost 400 pounds, this made about as much sense to me as claiming that the two essential food groups are chocolate/peanut butter brownies and beer (oh, wait—I think I did believe that at the time). I felt like I had little or no control over my appetite or my eating, and was probably allergic to vegetables (quite possibly to vitamins in general). For my inner normal eater, “normal” meant about 5000 calories/day worth of mostly junk food.

Since then, I’ve learned that in fact, I really do have something that at least resembles an inner normal eater—maybe a normal-eater-in-training would be more accurate. Trying to cooperate with this healthy part of myself really does make life a lot better and easier, compared to all those years I spent believing that my real self was the problem, not the solution.

But it took a while and a lot of hard work to overcome my problems with emotional eating and negative thinking to find and establish contact with my inner normal eater. The first step, for me, was recognizing that my feelings of being out of control and powerless over food and eating weren’t reality—they were part of a mental and emotional pattern called learned helplessness that I had developed over many years.

Then I had to work hard at dismantling that state of mind and replacing it with a positive and realistic sense of self-efficacy, one decision and one day at a time.

I still struggle with these issues to some extent today, and I can’t say that I’m comfortable with totally trusting my appetite to maintain a healthy weight. Right now, for example, my effort to lose the 30 pounds I regained over the past year isn’t going very well because the combination of new physical limitations and a few medications that affect my metabolism has apparently changed how many calories I need in one direction (down), and my appetite in the other direction. What feels “normal” to me at this point is making the scale go up, not down.

So, I’m also counting calories and watching the scale pretty closely for a while again, until I get a better idea of what it actually takes for me to lose this weight. But this feels normal to me, too. There’s nothing abnormal about using appropriate tools to get and apply the knowledge you need to accomplish your goals, as long as you’re mindfully using the tools and they’re not controlling your feelings or running your life. And there’s nothing to be gained by becoming a fanatic or a perfectionist about mindful or intuitive eating, to the point that you become compulsive about not using tools or adopting reasonable food rules to accomplish your goals.

Or so it seems to me. The key is to trust yourself to be able to do the right thing, for the right reason, and in the right way often enough to accomplish your goals.

What do you think? Do you feel like you have an inner normal eater you can trust?

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  • 297
    "normal eating is going to the table hungry, and eating until you are satisfied." I thought the "full" or "satisfied" message didn't reach the brain until 20 minutes after you've eaten. I don't ever plan to be hungry, but I will re-read this and it's links when I'm not hungry. 8-) - 4/19/2013   9:29:41 PM
  • 296
    Great article! I have the book on 'mindful eating' and have started actually reading it. *gasp!* I know this will be the key for me, along with learning to quiet that 'inner child' voice that tells me that I can have what I want, when I want it and no one can stop me. :-p - 4/19/2013   7:16:07 AM
  • 295
    At the moment, nope! Working on it though. Using Spark I'm getting better at knowing what is normal/healthy. - 4/17/2013   9:54:15 PM
  • 294
    Great insight and something to keep in mind as a continue on my weight loss journey. Thank you. - 4/17/2013   12:41:45 PM
  • 293
    I like to think of myself as a mindful eater in training as well. After more than three years of following a more or less similar nutritional plan, my body has adjusted to my current calorie levels as normal--at least most of the time. Tools like measuring cups, food scales and my tracker keep me honest and on track where my brain can't. They're part of my version of mindful eating. - 4/17/2013   9:27:04 AM
  • 292
    Yes... mindful eating is helping me to get back in control! I'm feeling like there is hope for me to control the emotional eating that has brought me to such a difficult place in my life. - 4/17/2013   12:14:40 AM
  • 291
    During my eating disordered years, I completely lost touch with natural feelings of hunger and satiation. Nowadays I usually notice I'm hungry when I start feeling nauseated. Sometimes, when I get real hunger pangs in my stomach, I freak out - the dizzy, irritable feeling is somehow very scary for me. I hate going hungry. Then again, I start losing weight whenever I stop overthinking my diet and just eat when I feel the need to, which could mean only twice a day. But that is not healthy, they tell me, and so I try to remind myself of eating regularly which makes me think about eating all the time which makes me eat more than I should which makes me gain weight which makes me feel totally out of control... - 4/15/2013   8:35:22 PM
    Yes, I believe in the concept of the 'normal eater'. BUT it gets whacked on the head and therefore unable to function by eating a lot of sugar, wheat, fat, and/or salt, sometimes dairy too. So this means that if I want to be in touch with that 'real appetite' I need to eat little of those 'foods'. - 4/15/2013   2:50:43 PM
    I do seem to have a "normal inner eater" inside me, but I absolutely have to start out with a healthy breakfast to keep her around for the rest of the day. Also, without tracking, my inner eater still tends to eat a few hundred calories extra. If I stick to my calorie goal, I usually need to be hungry for about an hour before a couple of my meals, so my inner eater will usually try to eat early, or get an extra snack in.

    What I really want, though, is a "normal inner exerciser" within me, but I just can't seem to find her. ;) - 4/15/2013   11:06:26 AM
  • 288
    I can trust my inner eater when I'm centered and calm. Since that is itself a relatively rare state during the work week, no, I can't trust myself to make good decisions. Like any other addict, I need patterns, 'rules' (with flexibility), and ways to gauge what I'm doing not based solely on what I feel I want/need.

    However, I'm becoming better at recognizing whether "I" or my inner addict is talking...I just don't listen reliably.

    Good blog. - 4/15/2013   8:41:51 AM
  • 287
    Thank you for such informed and well-written blogs;especially this one. The idea of "learned helplessness" resonated in me. My "normal eater", has been neglected for too many years. It needs careful nurturing, right now and planning to help it to emerge.
    Nancy - 4/15/2013   8:34:52 AM
  • 286
    My normal eater "eats and runs" at dinner time. The hungry girl arrives in her place. - 4/15/2013   8:09:28 AM
  • 285
    Nope, I personally do not believe I have an inner normal of any kind. I believe many others do, but I just have too much baggage, PTSD and other issues... I have no idea when I am hungry until it is painful, and I cannot tell when I am full. I have poor proprioception, usually benign for me, but repeatedly leading to broken toes and bruised shoulders, from crashing into doorways and corners that haven't moved an inch in the 18 years I've lived in my apartment! I am slowly adding more healthful foods and reducing portion sizes, especially of less-healthful foods. I have to impose my own structure, as I discovered many years ago that I could go for a day or two without eating without even realizing it, or could continue to eat until I felt ill. I thought I was eating almost entirely when I was hungry and not doing emotional eating. My daughter had turned 18 and moved to her own place. I realized, after dropping 50+ pounds effortlessly, that apparently for years I'd been eating when my kids were hungry!! I'd just started dating after my divorce and my BF and daughter were worried about my rapid weight loss, so I explored the causes and was bitterly disappointed to learn how out of touch with my body I really was. I again have a lot of emotional eating issues, but even if I dealt with all of those, I could never trust any inner normal, because I have none. I came from a dysfunctional family, like many of us, and my sister and I laugh that we would not recognize "normal" in most situations. We have to laugh or we'd cry. It is a horrid state. I've had a doctor ask me to hold my breath and freak out when he glanced up and saw I was STILL holding my breath because he hadn't told me to breathe again. I work with a wonderful chiropractor, who knows to tell me when to lower my arm or leg after she's had me raise it, after several times when I just held the position until the limb started to droop. Great blog, great to read, and probably helpful to many, but alas, I am not one of them. - 4/14/2013   6:53:12 PM
  • 284
    This is so good and encouraging; thank you! Like many others I greatly appreciate your candor about your own ups and downs. - 4/14/2013   5:34:04 PM
  • 283
    Awesome blog! I think you wrote brilliantly, Coach Dean, and I am so vry happy to see you doing so again. You speak the words of common sense AND of having been there and walking the walk besides talking the talk! Thank you and well done!!! - 4/14/2013   1:35:16 PM
  • 282
    Wow, what a terrific article! I have found that with mindful eating, I am chose foods that are nutritional and tasty. If I am out of that frame of mind, I pick foods that I love but I eat way too much of them. I eat all of the time and am stuffed to the point of discomfort. I have tackled this problem a number of times and will get it under control, then crazy happens (especially when work gets frantic) and I lose site of it. Now I back to mindful eating again and I am determined to stick with it for good this time...eat only when I am hungry and until I am satisfied, not stuffed. - 4/14/2013   10:00:53 AM
  • 281
    I am reading Richard Bernstein M.D.'s "The Diabetes Solution" and recommend his lectures on Youtube. He's had Type 1 diabetes since he was 12 and is 78 now. He treats Type 2 diabetics 95% of the time. I have Insulin Resistance as does all obese people according to Dr. Bernstein. Once I learned that I had high levels of Insulin from carbohydrates, I learned why my "NORMAL EATER" isn't working. He explains all of this in detail. - 4/14/2013   9:49:19 AM
  • 280
    I blogged about it. I lived most of my life as a "normal eater". After a family problem, I lost my desire to eat. I find tracking helps me to eat healthier foods. When I don't track, I eat too much junk and not enough fruits and vegetables. I'm certain in time that I'll be back to "normal eating". - 4/14/2013   8:10:20 AM
  • RADIANT888
    "And thereís nothing to be gained by becoming a fanatic or a perfectionist about mindful or intuitive eating, to the point that you become compulsive about not using tools or adopting reasonable food rules to accomplish your goals" ------------ Brilliant article - and this bit in particular resonates with me. I track what I'm eating and after a while I get in to this mindset of: 'I should listen to my body - it should all just be intuitive' and BAMM portion control goes out of the window. I guess it's a gradual process like a lot of things - but all in all when I'm tracking for now I'm making better choices - 4/14/2013   7:14:58 AM
    Thanks for sharing. - 4/14/2013   2:17:57 AM
  • 277
    Thanks for this insightful, hopeful article. "Then I had to work hard at dismantling that state of mind and replacing it with a positive and realistic sense of self-efficacy, one decision and one day at a time." This comes to me just as I need it most. - 4/13/2013   10:53:10 PM
    I have found tracking to be eye opening. I thought i was doing ok, but i wasn't. And what really got me was the calories I have to burn to match the calories of some of what I like to eat. I eat in moderation, I will have one or two cookies, or one or two hershey kisses, but when I got on the bike or go for a run and realize how far I have to go and how hard I have to push to make up for that, it makes those foods seem more like a reward...something I have to truly want! - 4/13/2013   10:50:28 PM
  • 275
    I have no feedback when I am hungry. I don't think about eating we have a routine.
    I have very rarely had the feeling of being overstuffed either.
    I do not think it is intuitive. I do believe growing up when food was scarce has left me without those urges. I feel I eat well but i am still on a very long plateau. Pat in Maine. - 4/13/2013   8:11:36 PM
  • 274
    I think it depends from person to person. for one person weighing and measuring is compulsive and tracking from time to time DOES help.

    but for others, its better to track everyday.

    so I think with this, there is NO one right answer. - 4/13/2013   6:57:23 PM
  • 273
    No but I continue to battle everyday! - 4/13/2013   6:37:09 PM
    A big part of losing weight in the past was me listening to my body and only eating when my body was hungry, not when the clock said it was "time" to eat. I have since started a different job, and I now struggle with this. Just because the clock says noon and my coworkers are eating, I don't need to eat if I am truly not hungry. It is a struggle. But I know I can do this. - 4/13/2013   6:32:43 PM
  • 271
    Really good blog. Lots of excellent points. I see others thought so too. - 4/13/2013   5:44:15 PM
    Excellent article! While I have come to these same conclusions recently (while using the Sparkpeople website as a weight loss tool), I wish I had reached the same conclusion 30 years ago. Then perhaps I wouldn't have had to lose the same 30 pounds multiple times. But, it's a new day--and the journey continues with better tools! - 4/13/2013   3:48:35 PM
  • 269
    very good blog--lots to think about as I continue this journey - 4/13/2013   2:55:13 PM
    At age 53 I struggle with finding how to eat " normal" I no longer dream of that perfect body but rather that every waking moment is not spent of food and why I shouldn't eat this or that. I have always been overweight. I have lost the weight many times only to gain it back and each time I have lost it I have said I won't be that big again. I would like to find that happy weight for me where I could spend the rest of my live living without obsessing about food........ - 4/13/2013   2:46:59 PM
  • 267
    great points! - 4/13/2013   1:14:27 PM
  • 266
    Wonderful article as always, Dean. There really is something to mindful eating. When I slow down and enjoy every bite my mind and the rest of my body catches up to what my mouth is doing. I tend to plan, then execute (eat) too fast, then think Is that all I get? What's next? Now I am trying to slow down and focus on my food, others at the table, and what's happening now. I hope this awareness will eventually help me find that balance described above. - 4/13/2013   12:56:52 PM
  • 265
    I'm not sure. Maybe my inner normal eater is comatose after years of emotional eating. I made sure we all ate healthy foods. I just didn't quit eating when I was satisfied.

    I'm sad and ashamed that I lost all the weight, loved how I looked and let it all--every last bit of it, all 50 pounds--come back.

    Not sure my set point can be reset, but I'm trying. - 4/13/2013   12:38:46 PM
  • 264
    I believe I'm still "in training mode." I've reached my goal weight, but I MUST keep my head in the game of keeping it off! I don't trust myself enough yet to simply rely on my "inner normal eater." I track most of what I eat....it's healthy snacks such as fruit or vegetables that I may not include daily on SP...but it's always in the back of my mind that I consumed it when I review my final calorie count of the day.
    The habit I had to overcome was taking seconds on foods that I enjoyed (but didn't need). I portion out my meals and for the most part I stick to that as my guide.
    I have wondered, though, when I finish...am I full? BUT if I dwell on it too long then I may try to convince myself to have another portion/serving. I settle that "internal argument" by reminding myself that I can always enjoy a healthy snack later if I really need to eat.
    I, too, like a few others, am watching my particular intake elements & being careful to not push my limit on fats and carbs. I have had to remind myself that there are good fats (like from nuts) that I should eat and not scrutinize and dismiss all fats as bad.
    It's a lifestyle change commitment I pray I can continue, as I never want to have to cover this territory again as long as I am able. - 4/13/2013   11:23:57 AM
  • JAN8573
    Glad to read I'm not the only one who learns this and still has to monitor in other ways, makes me feel better. - 4/13/2013   11:19:45 AM
    Thank you for this blog. It's insightful. I wish you success. - 4/13/2013   11:04:08 AM
  • 261
    I do not have a " normal inner eater" I am not even sure what "normal " is . I am working on having a healthy relationship with food . What I want is a "controlled inner eater" , since I am not sure normal will ever be me. I want to have control and balance in my meals . With healthy food and portion size. That is what I strive for and if its "NORMAL" then so be it and if not My Journey. Here is to healthy and portion control . - 4/13/2013   11:02:51 AM
  • 260
    This blog came up because I felt I was losing the battle of weight loss & living healthy. But, " today is my day and I will take ownership and not let anyone or anything take it away from me". - 4/13/2013   10:28:03 AM
  • 259
    This blog came up because I felt I was losing the battle of weight loss & living healthy. But, " today is my day and I will take ownership and not let anyone or anything take it away from me". - 4/13/2013   10:27:51 AM
  • 258
    Good article, but the concept doesn't make a lot of sense. The "intuitive eater" supposedly finds it comfortable and easy to maintain. But none of this is easy and a lot of it is not comfortable. After all, what's "normal?" For most of us, what we grew up with, what's ingrained in us, is not "normal" in a healthy sense. People who find it easy to eat without thinking about it, simply listen to their bodies, and maintain healthy weights do not generally need websites like this one. - 4/13/2013   10:23:05 AM
  • 257
    I had excellent, intuitive eating skills. However, lack of finance, losing loved ones in a close space of time, I went to the pity party system (can't afford to do how much I enjoy so take it in food). I'm back to listening to my bod. See, there are arguments, the mouth, the stomach, the brain. Now when one goes to food hedonistic mode, it becomes necessary to rely on the others and to realize when that is...like trying to figure out if your brother wants you to do something wrong because he'd think it funny, serve his purposes to get something done, and make you look badly in front of the folks (don't let any part of your bod do this to you!). This relying on the others in the mouth, stomach, brain issue can be great, because then you have two against one LOL making it much easier to win the battle for the good! But I am sorry, there are intrinsic weaknesses to the system...When it comes to Christmas and like a black forest torte and egg nog...they might all gang up against you...so caution! This is when we turn to that weird thing called other people and sound articles and advice...this type of codepency can sometimes be a positive thing...:) But watch it, they are some of the most inconsistent things, so don't rely to heavily on them as you might reach for the wrong part of the wrong article at just the time when you want to go food hedon. And I am adamantly opposed to your reasoning to avoid people...the food thing is a great excuse to avoid people you really don't like.....geez! So the key has always been, you do the food, you do the exercise time....period. - 4/13/2013   10:00:48 AM
  • 256
    Love to reread Coach Dean's blogs from three years ago. I hope he is well. - 4/13/2013   9:49:36 AM
  • 255
    Not quite, but I am getting there... - 4/13/2013   9:28:56 AM
  • 254
    This is one of the very best blogs I've ever read... Now to find my Inner Normal and hang on for dear life... Thank you :) - 4/13/2013   9:19:48 AM
  • 253
    It helps me to gauge my physical hunger before, after and 30 minutes after a meal. I'm trying to practice other activities when I'm not physically hungry.
    "If hunger isn't the question, food is not the answer." - 4/13/2013   9:16:25 AM
  • 252
    I also go through spurts where my inner normal eater comes out and then I back slide, but I'm still looking and trying to get my inner normal eater to come out because it sure would make things easier! - 4/13/2013   8:55:58 AM
    I seem to have cycles of a heallthy eating pattern I can trust and then it gets "out of whack" and I have to rein it back in and relose 10-15 lbs. Then I seem to be on 'automatic pilot' for 2-6 months and then it gets out of whack again. At least I keep trying and each "bad" cycle is still healthier than I was 3-20 years ago, so that is still progress. - 4/13/2013   8:11:54 AM
  • 250
    The tough thing for me was finding the "new normal." I just couldn't eat the way I did years ago but stayed healthy and slim. Those days were gone. I had to find a new way to eat to get these results, nearly driving myself crazy in the process. Portion control and frequent meals were the answer and eating breakfast, too. It seems so simple, but it was very hard for me to discover this new formula to good health, and, boy, was it worth it. :-) - 4/13/2013   7:21:24 AM
  • 249
    that holy grail - the normal eater - she's just around the corner. It's what we're all doing here - seeking ways to invite her to take over. - 4/13/2013   6:44:00 AM
  • 248

    Dean, I think people need to do what they need to do to manage their weight. If it's intuitive, great; if not, great. It's what works that matters. I think I'll routinely be weighing in, for example, because I find portions tend to go up, exercise tends to drop if I don't focus on that number at least once a week. Color me obsessive, but actually I think I'm a dreamer who needs a little obsessing to stay healthy.

    Wonderful blog on important topic. I always look forward to your blogs. - 4/13/2013   5:32:14 AM

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