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What Is Normal Eating? (How to Eat Like a Normal Person)

Do you feel confused or have no idea how to eat like a normal person? What does normal eating even look like? If you’ve been following diet after diet, you may have no idea. This post will walk you through how to enjoy eating again. 

This post was originally published in August 2018 | Updated September, 2021

Many clients come to me wanting to learn how to eat like a normal person. Likely, diet culture has taken any sense of normalcy away from them, and they can’t fathom putting together their own meal without external guidance or validation.

In this post, we will discuss:

  • What is diet culture and how does it impact us?
  • What is normal eating?
  • Food flexibility around food
  • How to eat like a normal person
  • What are the rules of normal eating?
  • How to enjoy eating
4 women huddled together of all different body sizes

What is Diet Culture?

To understand what normal eating is, we first have to understand diet culture and how that has impacted our views of normal eating. 

Diet system is a belief system that equates thinness to health and moral superiority. Diet culture is all around us – it’s the media, companies looking to make a profit, magazines, models for clothing, etc

Because of the toxic diet culture we live in, people have lost any sense of competency around food.

They feel like they’ve spiraled out of control, or they don’t know how to choose foods based on what they really want. I have so much empathy for these people because fad diets don’t work. 

The wellness diet, a term for the toxic culture we live in, is everywhere and it’s easy to be fooled into thinking it’s the secret to health. And rather than making us healthier, it’s actually contributing to more people having an unhealthy relationship with food

This is one reason why I made My Ebook about normal eating, hunger and fullness. It’s meant to simplify normal eating, something that society has turned into a complicated thing. 

Cover page for Ebook about hunger and fullness

Maybe, they hear diet culture whispering in their ears, “choose the salad, the burger is too fattening.”

Or, “you shouldn’t eat that cookie, you had dessert last night.”

These negative voices, known as the food police, do nothing but battle us down and lower our self-esteem.

They set us up for feeling bad about ourselves. For creating shame and guilt, and feeling out of control with food

They automatically put us in the mindset where we won’t enjoy our food, no matter what we enjoy.

wood fired pizza with mozzarella cheese closeup with side of pizza sauce

What is Normal Eating? I Just Want to Eat!

According to Ellyn Satter, normal eating is:

  • Going to the table hungry, and eating until you are satisfied
  • Being able to choose food you enjoy and to eat it and truly get enough of it – not just stop eating because you think you should
  • 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
  • Giving yourself permission to eat because you are happy, sad, bored or because it feels good
  • Overeating at times, and feeling stuffed and uncomfortable, and undereating at times, and wishing you had more
  • Leaving cookies on the plate because you will let yourself have cookies again tomorrow, or eating more now because they taste so good
  • Mostly three meals a day – or four or five – or choosing to munch along the way. It may vary day by day!

Normal eating may look different for everyone, so how to eat like a normal person has no concrete answer. Learning to tune in to your body and listen to your hunger cues and feel your fullness is important!

Intuitive eating is a “normal” way of eating. It’s not a diet, it’s the complete opposite. Read more about why intuitive eating is not a diet

dietitian holding intuitive eating book

When we talk about what normal eating means to them, they often say they want to think about food less. Food takes up too much space in their brains, so they want it to be less of a big deal.

I totally get it, and I want that for everyone.

We have so many choices to make in a day – there’s no reason to spend x amount of time stressing about food. Embracing food flexibility is key to a normal relationship with food. 

girl wearing orange tank top and eating ice cream

Why Food Flexibility is Important

First, let’s think about all of the other choices we make on a daily basis

  • Whether to press snooze or get up when your alarm goes off
  • What clothes to wear
  • Shower in the morning or at night?
  • Am I working out? Do I need to pack clothes for that?
  • Should I call mom/a friend on the way to work?
  • Do I have time to stop for coffee?
  • Should I have a 2nd/3rd coffee?
  • Should I go to happy hour after work? I’m really tired…
  • I think I’m going to go to bed early tonight. Do I really want to miss that show?
  • What do we need for this weekend’s tailgate
  • What errands do I need to run after work? Can I squeeze them in during lunch?
  • I need to reschedule that appointment…ugh
  • Do I need to order anything off Amazon? (<– Maybe that one is just me…)

The list goes on. I explain it this way. Each little thought we have sets off a ding in our brain. Some dings are louder than others.

If you’re thinking about food constantly, well, then your brain is constantly dinging. How do you get anything done? More importantly, how do you get anything done well?

Being flexible with food, eating outside of predetermined meal times, incorporating snacks because you’re hungry, enjoying a sweet treat when family comes to visit and more are just some powerful examples. 

Just imagine how much more present you can be in your life when food doesn’t take up 99% of your brain space.

closeup of 3 ingredient oatmeal cookies topped with peanut butter

How to Eat Like a Normal Person

While the term “normal” should always be in quotes (who says what’s normal for me is normal for you?!), here are some things to think about for “normal eating” and what that may look like for you. 

Ask yourself these questions to determine how to figure out what you want to eat and how you feel about it. 

  • Are you eating foods you like?
  • Do you choose foods based on what you’re craving?
  • Do you eat when you’re hungry or based off a certain time?
  • Are you satisfied after eating or do you always want more?
  • Do you think about food more than 25% of your day?
  • Do you avoid certain foods that you deem as “bad,” inflammatory, too high in fat/calories/carbs, etc?
  • Have you ever eaten past fullness? Do you feel guilty about that?
  • Does eating certain foods bring about shame or guilt?
  • Do you focus on calories or fuel and enjoyment?
  • Can you go out to dinner without looking at the menu ahead of time and order something in the moment?
  • Do you not eat past a certain time?
  • Do you make rigid food choices, meaning you feel like you need to measure amounts, stop yourself before you “eat too much,” or avoid certain foods based on the time of day or calorie amount?
Final dish of stir fry egg noodles with chicken and veggies on serving bowl | Bucket List Tummy

What Are the Rules of Normal Eating?

First off, get rid of any notation of rules. There are no rules about food or eating. Every day is different!

You may be looking for how to eat normally after an eating disorder, in which the idea of eating without structure is chaotic and overwhelming.

Here are some things to think about when you’re confused about eating or what to eat when you don’t know what to eat.

Sometimes you may be thinking, “I just want to eat,” but you have an overload of voices in your head!

Ask Yourself, What Do I Want To Eat?

When deciding how to figure out what you want to eat, ask yourself some questions about flavor and texture.

  • Is it something sweet?
  • Salty? Savory?
  • Crunchy? Creamy?
  • Hot or cold?
  • What sort of environment are you enjoying this in?

Start with texture and flavor, and obviously consider what food you have available to you and on hand. I recommend keeping a stocked pantry with these pantry staples and these healthy snacks

If calories did not matter, what would you truly choose to eat?

If you weren’t restricting any food groups (ie – following keto or a low carb diet, not eating “bad” foods, etc.), what would you truly choose to eat?

cinnamon bun and latte next to laptop on marble table

Aim For Consistency and Regularity 

Don’t go too long without eating or skip meals and snacks. Often, stress and intense exercise can blunt hunger, so knowing other signs of hunger is important. 

Physical hunger is just one type of hunger, so being aware of some of the other types is important, such as feeling dizzy, thinking about food, losing concentration, headaches and more. 

Don’t Overthink It

We can get overly caught up in eating x amount of fruits and vegetables per day, x grams of protein per meal and more. And while yes, that is important, if we overly focus on that, we may overlook the foods that our body wants or needs in the moment. 

Sometimes, knowing (or stressing) too much about food and nutrition can backfire. You can overanalyze every food choice you make, and focus on the details, rather than the big picture.

And that can often lead to only eating “clean foods,” which can lead to undereating and nutrient deficiencies, as well as a tarnished relationship with food. The effects of undereating go far beyond weight loss. 

Oftentimes, only eating salads or low calorie foods leaves you feel unsatisfied, hungrier later on, and can lead to binges. More about food satisfaction here. 

Cheese burgers with fries at a vineyard

What to Eat When you Don’t Know What to Eat

If nothing above sounds appealing or you have zero appetite and you don’t know what to eat, aim for meals you normally enjoy and aim fr consistency. 

Balance your plate with carbohydrates, protein, and color, and have some healthy fat in there. We don’t need to overly complicate it. 

How to Enjoy Eating

One of the main drivers behind normal eating and intuitive eating is finding enjoyment in food. Food is so much more than fuel

Food can be shared with others, memories are created around it, and it can nourish your soul and your body. It doesn’t have to be one or the other. 

Food can make you happy, and remind you of happier times. Trying new foods, or cultural experiences can be lifetime memories. 

Not looking at food beyond nutrients is quite robotic, and we are fluid human beings, not robots. 

It doesn’t matter if you eat veggies at every meal, or get x amount of whole grains in per day. It doesn’t matter if you eat mostly carbs one day, and more fats the next.

Our bodies are smart, and if we enjoy food, listen to our bodies and incorporate variety, we will find a balance that works for us and helps us feel our best. 

If you have off days here and there, that’s okay and can be normal. Remember, normal eating is sometimes overeating and sometimes undereating. 

mom holding infant in infant carrier with smoothie in hand

Our bodies are fluid, and similarly, our wants and needs are fluid. Maybe some days you need less carbs, and that’s okay. Other days, you need higher protein meals, like after a workout.

Your body KNOWS what you need if you can tune in and listen to it. Diet culture tell us to ignore our cues – and they can become more dull over time. But, with practice (and working with someone), they CAN be re-established.

We know intuitive eating isn’t black and white – intuitive eating can be messy.

Normal Eating: The Bottom Line

The bottom line is, normal eating is eating without really thinking about it. You sense hunger, so you eat and you don’t question it.

You sense yourself starting to get full, so you start to slow down and stop eating. And then you don’t think about food until your next eating occasion. 

You’re not worrying about what you’re eating next but you know there will be food. It makes me smile to compare intuitive eating to babies because it’s so true.

Cam cries if she gets too hungry. She’ll push me away, or push the bottle away, when she doesn’t want anymore. Babies are so intuitive and promoting food neutrality among children can be challenging in this culture!

Pinterest graphic

Check Out These Other Intuitive Eating Posts:

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  1. The best thing I ate this weekend was probably the buffalo chicken wrap I had that used chicken tenders. I love the crunch it gives the wrap! Then again I had steak and mashed potatoes last night which is always a delicious meal. Sometimes it’s hard to choose the absolute best! (Or maybe that’s just me)

  2. We made the fig & pig quiche from the Run Fast Eat Slow cookbook last night; SO GOOD. I didn’t think I was a huge quiche fan, but this one was a big hit in our household. Normal eating for me this past weekend meant consciously recognizing that I’ve been asking a lot of my body lately and, in turn, honoring hunger cues and subconscious cravings for satisfying, protein-rich meals.

    1. Is that from the first or second one? I have the first one and don’t remember ever seeing that recipe but I LOVE figs and that sounds very interesting. I’m happy to hear you’re gravitating towards satisfying, protein rich foods!

  3. Last night I had a bruschetta chicken burger on a ciabatta. So good!

    One thing I struggle with is that intuitive eating does not seem to equal normal eating. I mean, if you look at people who don’t really know about nutrition, some people drink soda all day or never eat fruits and veggies and while that may be normal in America, that’s not healthy at all. Would love to to hear your thoughts on this.

    1. Hi Eileen! Thank you for your comment. You bring up a great point, which is that some people don’t have access to foods like fruits and vegetables, which does make intuitive eating a little more nuanced and challenging. It’s not that they don’t like the foods, but maybe don’t have the money to buy them or transportation to get to the grocery store, etc. Maybe their culture or family drinks more soda, eats certain foods, etc etc. For the majority of us, we are privileged to have access to such foods when we want them, but it’s not the case for everyone, so intuitive eating does look a little different to them. However, by their standards, they are probably eating “normally” for what is their normal. Maybe I can expand on this in a future post.

      PS – I love ciabatta rolls.

  4. “Food should never make you feel guilty if you’re eating based on what your body wants.” —- this struck a new chord with me today. If you eat what your body wants. Huh.

    I think for a lot of people who struggle/have struggled with disordered eating, the question “but HOW!?” arrises when we talk about becoming a “normal eater.” I don’t know the answer to this, other than it takes a lot of time and lots of little shifts over and over again.

    Best thing I ate this weekend… hmm. I had a pretty delicious burrito/wrap from work that had tofu, tempeh bacon, garlic mayo and avocado. I tend to still not let myself have our burritos – a lingering fear food for me I guess – but I was able to fight past that this weekend.

    1. Hi Cora, Thanks for bringing this up! You’re right, often times people need assistance with HOW to integrate this into their current life and thoughts. I like to personalize that with each individual client based on where they are in their journey, but maybe I can write some sort of post on it!