The Rules of "Normal" Eating

A Common Sense Approach for Dieters, Overeaters, Undereaters, Emotional Eaters, and Everyone in Between!

by Karen R. Koenig, LICSW, M.Ed.

Oh, Good, Rules!

Excerpt from The Rules of "Normal" Eating


A client with a compulsive eating problem told me early in her therapy about an incident that had astonished her so greatly that she was still in awe a week later. At the dessert bar of a free buffet, a colleague she didn't know very well turned to her and said, "I just don't feel like having anything." My client, on the other hand, had been trying to figure out how many desserts she could haul back to the table without drop- ping anything. She simply couldn't fathom how this woman, who looked like she could easily afford the calories, could turn down dessert, especially when it wouldn't cost her a penny. I explained that her colleague might not have been hungry or in the mood for something sweet, that she might be a "nor- mal" eater.

Shaking her head in amazement, my client gasped, "A normal eater? What's that?"

What is a "normal" eater?

If you've been a compulsive, emotional, or restrictive eater for any length of time, you know that you don't eat "normally." As a compulsive eater, you eat mindlessly, without thinking about your actions, groping your way through a bag of chips while watching TV, grazing through the cabinets in your kitchen with- out even realizing it, polishing off a box of Raisinettes in the car on the way home from work. As an emotional eater, you auto- matically reach for food in response to uncomfortable feelings. After a fight with your partner, you suddenly return to earth when your spoon hits the bottom of the ice cream container, or you gather all your favorite foods around you for comfort to make Saturday night a little less lonely. Most, but not all, people who eat too much are both compulsive and emotional eaters.

As a restrictive eater, on the other hand, you probably know more about calories and fat grams than many registered dieti- cians do. You keep yourself on a permanent, lifelong diet leash and rarely let go. Filled with shame and guilt around food, you're terrified of gaining weight and follow rigid rules about when and how much you can eat. You use your relationship with food to manage your problems and feelings.

Many disordered eaters careen wildly between overeating and undereating—within a day (barely eating all day, they gorge at night) or a week (severely restricting food on weekdays and bingeing on weekends), or by punctuating weeks or months of strict dieting with weeks or months of chaotic compulsive/emo- tional eating.

If any of these patterns fit you, you know that you feel any- thing but "normal" around food. To you, "normal" eaters are alien creatures filled with magical powers who think food is nothing but, well, food. Who are these amazing human-looking beings who are in tune with their bodies and make bizarre com- ments like, "I'm not hungry right now," "No, thanks, I'm done," and "Jeez, is it lunchtime already?" How can they be so unafraid of food, think so lovingly of it, and nonchalantly comment, "Boy, am I hungry. I can't wait to dig in," "I can't remember the last time I tasted something so delicious," and "I'd love a little more, thanks."

What are "normal" eaters? Do they eat only at salad bars and shop at health food stores, shunning white flour and simple carbohydrates? Do they sit at a table to eat three square meals a day and never snack? Do they never overeat or undereat? Is everyone who's neither overweight nor underweight a "normal" eater? And most important, how do they do it?

The fact is, there is no one right way to be a "normal" eater. "Normal" eaters share similar attitudes toward food, but some eat two big meals a day because of large appetites and tight sched- ules, while others nosh every few hours and feel pleasantly satis- fied all day long. Some are picky fussbudgets around food and make sure the waiter gets their order exactly right, while others eat practically anything. Some are nutrition-conscious label scanners, while others couldn't tell a carbohydrate from a cata- maran. Some don't mind skipping a meal if they're busy, while others pay exquisite attention to satisfying their food cravings and believe nothing beats a good meal. Some rarely overeat be- cause food simply doesn't mean that much to them, while oth- ers expect to overeat on special occasions and think nothing of it. (No, getting out of bed each morning does not constitute a special occasion!)

How much, how little, or how often a person eats does not define whether or not they're a "normal" eater. What "normal eaters" have in common is that they don't think in terms of good and bad foods, as if slabs, scoopfuls, wedges, chunks, slices, nug- gets, and morsels from the kitchen are little angels or devils with agendas of their own. "Normal" eaters are aware that there are high- and low-calorie foods and may even occasionally consider caloric content in choosing what to eat. Many enjoy being healthy and eating nutritiously. However, they don't base their choices solely on how many calories or fat grams a particular food has. Most "normal" eaters really enjoy food and eating. And it would never occur to them to weigh their food—or constantly think about weighing their bodies!

"Normal" eaters respond to a set of conscious and uncon- scious rules relating to food. Yes, rules. Many people think that only diets have rules. In fact, what terrifies compulsive and re- strictive eaters alike is the thought that without dieting, there would be no rules and caloric chaos would reign! Not true. In fact, far from it.

What are the rules of "normal" eating?

The rules of "normal" eating are deceptively simple. Except- ing unusual circumstances, "normal" eaters:

  1. Eat when they are hungry or have a craving
  2. Choose foods they believe will satisfy them
  3. Stay connected to their bodies and eat with awareness and enjoyment
  4. Stop eating when they are full or satisfied

In short, they tune in to their body's signals that they need food for fuel or have a yen for a particular something. They re- spond to and respect their hunger, then choose foods based on what their body says it wants or doesn't want. They don't try to satisfy themselves with somebody else's idea of what will ring their chimes. They don't expect food to be orgasmic, but they do aim for enjoyment by staying connected to their taste buds and their feelings of fullness and satisfaction. When they've had enough (we'll get to what that means later on), they stop eating. Eating in this way is as natural to them as breathing. The key point here is that for "normal" eaters, saying yes or no to food is no big deal.

How do I know if I'm hungry?

When I speak of hunger, I mean the general sense that there's a lack of fuel in the system and you're running on empty. Signals of hunger include a gnawing or hollow sensation in the chest cavity or stomach area, light-headedness, growling in your belly, slight irritability, perhaps a mild headache, and even a vague physical queasiness that's difficult to describe. Hunger is a bio- logical phenomenon, and its sensations grow gradually stronger. Hunger is not just wanting to chew or swallow or fill your mouth with food. We'll get to what that is later.

Knowing your hunger level is essential to "normal" eating. If you're so hungry that you're nauseous or ready to eat dirt, you've waited too long and will probably inhale every bit of food in your general vicinity. If you're not at all hungry, you won't know when to stop because you were full or satisfied to begin with. Not surprisingly, food tastes most enjoyable when you are moderately hungry. How clever that we are designed in such a logical way!

Here is what true hunger is not: an ache in your soul. The feeling you get when you don't want to do something. Thirst or exhaustion. Any kind of emotion that drives you to food. Stuff- ing down uncomfortable feelings. If it can be satisfied by some- thing other than food, it is not hunger.

What is a food craving?

Food cravings are callings that need to be answered, itches that need to be scratched. The idea is to stop scratching as soon as the itch goes away; that is, identify the craving and eat exactly as much as you need to satisfy it. Food cravings are different from hunger, and they may or may not accompany it. Both are physical sensations, stirrings from deep inside our bodies. Hun- ger tells you it's time to eat, and cravings tell you what to eat.

So what exactly is a craving? It's a yen for a particular taste or food that comes on suddenly, seemingly out of the blue—an organic longing for something as general as sweet, sour, spicy, tart, or salty, or as specific as a fresh raspberry or eggs Florentine. With a craving, sometimes you can actually taste the food in your mouth when it isn't there! Your mouth waters for it. Occa- sionally, I can taste kiwi fruit on my tongue when I am nowhere near one. That's a craving (and also a little weird, I know). I'm not a big meat eater, but every two years or so (probably when I haven't been eating enough protein), I find myself dying for spare- ribs or a hamburger. The craving can be so fierce that, much as I adore my husband, he'd be putting himself in mortal danger by standing in front of the car when I'm ready to peel out in search of red meat. That's an honest-to-goodness craving.

You will not necessarily have a craving every time you're hungry. Sometimes you'll know exactly what you want at practically the instant you realize you're hungry. Other times, you'll wander around the kitchen or supermarket or stare at the menu while your dinner companions grow impatient before you can make a selection.

Here is what a craving is not: You have nothing to do, so you decide to eat. You want to fill the emotional or spiritual void inside you. You're sad or disappointed and convince yourself that eating will pick up your spirits. You're unsettled by having a sliver of leftover birthday cake in the refrigerator. Cravings are not rooted in emotional discomfort. They are biological, not psy- chological, independent from your feeling state, and, like hun- ger, are truly about food.

How do I know what foods will satisfy me?

If you've been dieting or restricting your food intake for ages, you may have temporarily lost the capacity to know what foods your body truly wants. You will have to figure it out by trial and error. The first question is, of course, how hungry you are. If you're very hungry, you may want something heavy and sub- stantial; if you're just getting hungry, you may want something lighter. You may need to sit quietly and let an image of a particu- lar food float into consciousness and settle into your mouth. If you're at a restaurant, look over the menu a few times, pausing at each item to attend to whether or not your body flickers inter- est. Or look through your kitchen to see what's available, not in a frantic way, but calmly, imagining what each food would taste like. If you have too many choices and feel confused—or if noth- ing strikes your fancy—try asking the following questions:

  • Do I want something sweet, salty, sour, hot, mushy, lumpy, cold, thick, liquidy, creamy, crunchy, soft, hard, chunky, frozen, bitter, icy, bland, bulky or spicy, starchy or sugary, filling or light?
  • Do I feel like not chewing and want the food to effort- lessly slide down my throat, or are my teeth looking for action?

The way to select food that satisfies is to look for answers inside yourself, not in a diet plan or on a food scale. Whatever you choose will depend on your mood, what's available, the set- ting you're in, what you've already eaten that day, and what you expect to eat later on. Think of it, you are the only person in the entire universe who knows what you want to eat!

"Normal" eaters don't get bent out of shape if the restaurant is out of their favorite dish. They order something else and hope that the item will be available next time. They try to choose satisfying foods, but if they don't feel satisfied, they don't stuff themselves out of frustration with some dish they didn't want in the first place. Au contraire: if the food isn't satisfying, they eat less of it!

Here is how choosing satisfying food does not happen: You make your selection based exclusively on caloric or fat content. You order the least fattening item on the menu. You order the most fattening item on the menu. You eat only salad until you feel yourself sprouting bunny ears and whiskers. You're starving or weren't hungry to begin with. You make a choice based on what you think you should or shouldn't eat. You're very upset or angry. You order whatever the person you are with orders.

No matter how long you've been silencing that voice inside you that knows just what food will hit the spot, it has not for- saken you. You may have to ask it to speak up and coax it out, and you certainly will have to listen very carefully. But if you're persistent, that voice will rise joyously in you, grateful to finally be heard.

What does it mean to be connected to my body and eat with awareness and enjoyment?

If you've ever had great sex, you know what it feels like to be connected to your body. You're full of heavenly sensation, glad to be alive, thrumming, exquisitely awakened by your lover's every touch. You are 100 percent there. Your body is screaming yes, yes, yes! If you've ever had mediocre sex, you know what it feels like to disconnect from your body. That's when you start calculating your car payments, wondering when you're going to find time to pick up your suit from the cleaners, or worrying whether your mother got her prescription filled. You have un- consciously (or maybe consciously) flipped your switch to off. You are barely there.

While your hands and mouth are eating, where are your thoughts? Are you purposely avoiding thinking about the food because you're afraid of it? Are you counting calories or wonder- ing what food will arrive next? Is your body at the table while your mind is back at the office? Staying connected to your body while you're eating means focusing on two things and two things only: the food and your body, your body and the food. If you're eating alone, this may not be so difficult—unless, of course, you're reading, watching TV, talking on the phone, working at the com- puter, playing with the cat, or distracting yourself from your body- food connection in some other mundane way.

"Normal" eaters automatically (unconsciously) check in with their bodies even when they're eating and doing other activities. They are multitasking without losing touch with how their body is responding to food because their procedural memory is at work. Procedural memory lays down patterns—what we call learning— when we aren't even aware that we're making these unconscious connections. In this case, memory has paired eating with body cues established in infancy and childhood. "Normal" eaters main- tain an unconscious connection between food and body even when they appear to be focused on the latest gossip or absorbed in a documentary on the Civil War. They're in tune with their body's signals because the signals are strong and clear, because they've been listening to them for a long time and have learned to trust them, and because they interpret them correctly.

Unconscious behaviors of "normal" eaters when they are eating include:
• They breathe regularly.
• They chew their food well before swallowing it.
• They look up from their plate often.
• They pause and enjoy the taste of what they are eating.
• They put their fork or spoon down occasionally and don't think of utensils as extensions of their arm.
• They have a silent, automatic, back-burner dialogue with themselves regularly while eating to see if they are still hungry or have reached fullness or satisfaction.
• They focus on the food in front of them, not what they ate yesterday or what they will be eating tomorrow.
• They don't care what's on someone else's plate or imagine that anyone cares what's on theirs.

Here is how not to stay connected to your body while eating:
• Shovel or gobble your food.
• Guilt trip, shame, or hate yourself for what you are eating or what you ate earlier.
• Eat as much as the person next to you.
• Tell yourself that you don't deserve to eat.
• Eat as little as the person next to you.
• Forget to breathe or taste the food.
• Rush through the meal.
• Struggle not to eat anything.
• Eat when you are too stressed to enjoy food.
• Worry while you're eating.
• Feel self-conscious about what you're eating.
• Eat to please someone else.

Are feeling full and satisfied the same thing?

The sensations of feeling full or satisfied are distinct but in- terrelated physical reactions to the experience of eating. They are often viewed as identical and are frequently confused. If you haven't eaten in several hours, feel light-headed and queasy, and are embarrassed by the racket in your stomach, you are experi- encing hunger; that is, your body needs to fuel up on food. Think of hunger as signaling an absence of food in the body and full- ness as its opposite, signaling a presence of sufficient food in the body. Fullness is a quantitative measurement.

Satisfaction is a qualitative measurement and may have noth- ing to do with how much you've eaten. You may feel satisfied after a few bites, or you may not feel you've reached satisfaction after a seven-course meal. Satisfaction may or may not accom- pany fullness.

For example, imagine that you're eating a tuna fish sand- wich. Here are some possible responses you might have:
• Feeling satisfied without feeling full. Before you reach a state of fullness, you may have had enough of the taste of tuna and feel satisfied. You may still be hungry and not yet full, but no longer want tuna fish.
• Feeling full without feeling satisfied. You may no longer feel hungry and may have eaten enough in terms of quantity, but feel unsatisfied because you either didn't enjoy the sandwich or did enjoy it, but now crave another taste.
• Feeling full and satisfied. The tuna sandwich filled you up nicely and you're licking your chops in satisfaction, desir- ing nothing more to eat.
• Feeling neither full nor satisfied. Because you were raven- ous, the sandwich only made a dent in your hunger and you are not yet full. You didn't particularly care for the taste of tuna, so you're left feeling unsatisfied.

There's another circumstance when you may be seeking only satisfaction, not fullness, from food: when you aren't hungry in the first place, yet you crave a particular food. Let's imagine that you're sitting at your desk working away and have a sudden urge for, say, a sourball. You're hardly looking to fill your belly with sourballs, but there is something inside you that is screaming tart-citrus-sweet. When you have a craving, the focus is on taste and texture. If you suck slowly on the sourball, it's more than likely that you'll need only one or two to satisfy your craving, and that will be that.

Here are two simple equations that will help you decide whether you should be seeking fullness or satisfaction.
• Hunger + food = satisfaction and/or fullness
• Craving + the craved food = satisfaction

The general rule of thumb regarding fullness and satisfac- tion is this: both fullness and satisfaction are healthy responses to hunger, while satisfaction is the only appropriate response to a craving. A craving—if you are authentically connected to your body and savor your food choice—should bring you to an "aahh" place with fairly little food. That doesn't mean that you may not want more of it; if it tastes good, you very well may. It merely means that more is not going to bring you increased flavorful enjoyment. In fact, the opposite is true: if you eat with aware- ness, you will reach a pinnacle of enjoyment (satisfaction) and after that, the food will not taste as good. And, remember, some- times you may be satisfied but will continue to eat because you're still hungry.

There's no way that you need a pint of ice cream to satisfy a craving; if a few spoonfuls or a dish don't do the trick, then ice cream isn't what you were craving to begin with. Remember, with a craving you're going for a peak experience that should result in a natural diminishment of the original desire. Try to honor your food cravings and not ignore them. Learn to differ- entiate between mouth hunger, which is generally emotional, and genuine cravings, which are more biological. Becoming a "normal" eater means saying yes to authentic cravings and enjoying eating.

How will I know when I have had enough?

When Donna Summer belts out the lyric "Enough is enough is enough," she's describing a situation that has reached its end point—in this case, a love affair. Actually, the lyrics of the song imply that Ms. Summer has had more than enough, that she's had too much. Unfortunately, it's not always easy to know ex- actly when enough is enough—enough love, creature comforts, stress, money, praise, work, play or leisure, intimacy, space, sleep, drink, emotional or physical pain—or food. We tend to overdo or underdo, then overdo and underdo again, struggling to find that elusive point that says "Just right."

At other times we may not realize that we know what is enough without even thinking about it. On days we can sleep in, we may feel rested or still sleepy when we wake up. If we've had enough sleep and feel refreshed, we get up. If not, we roll over and head back to dreamland. With little or no analysis and reflection, we depend on our body to give us an accurate reading of what to do.

The same is true of other everyday activities. We can't wait to curl up on the couch and lose ourselves in the latest best- seller; yet after a while our body says "Enough" and signals us to finish the chapter and find something else to do. Or we may be on vacation, content to do absolutely nothing. So how come after days or weeks of lounging and mindless activity, we yearn for something more meaningful and start to look forward to re- turning home? Or, working on a project hour after hour, we fi- nally give up and sigh, "That's all for now." The point is that, if we listen, our body-mind will speak.

Each person's sense of enough in relation to any activity is unique. What's enough TV for you may be too much or too little for me. Enough runs on a ski slope or enough sets of tennis will be different for each individual, depending on a number of com- plex factors. A finely tuned sense of what is enough in life is truly a remarkable and useful gift. It signals that you are in bal- ance, in sync with your body and mind.

When you lose touch with your body's needs and wants, you can't sense when it's had enough of anything, especially food. The problem of not knowing when you've eaten enough to feel full or satisfied stems from childhood. If, as a child, you were allowed and encouraged to tune in and respond to your body's signals for satisfaction and fullness, then you'll grow up to be an adult who trusts the accuracy of your internal messages. If you said you were done with your macaroni and cheese, and your parents took away your half-eaten food with a smile, they were validating and reinforcing your body's cues regarding enough food. Now, after years of practice, you'll be skilled at identifying satiation.

If, on the other hand, someone (Mom? Dad? Grandma? Grandpa?) ignored or challenged your bodily signals of fullness and satisfaction, you'll grow into an adult who cannot recognize such signals or who willfully ignores or overrides them. If some- one in your childhood overtly or covertly gave you the message to disregard your body cues and keep eating or stop eating, this may have taught you to depend on external factors to tell you how much to eat. You learned to base your sense of enough on something outside yourself—portion size, whatever you can get away with, calories or fat content, what you feel you deserve—or someone outside yourself—the approval or disapproval of a par- ent, spouse, friend, partner, co-worker, or whoever is watching you eat.

The more you depend on external cues to tell you anything about your relationship with food, the farther away you move from being a "normal" eater. You can't hear what your body is saying when you're listening hard to someone else's appraisal, whether that voice is real or inside your head. If you enjoy the sound of the waves, you need to move nearer the ocean. If you want to hear, really hear, your body's signals, you have to be more closely connected to them and block out everything else. Only then will you learn when enough is enough.

Moreover, if you have problems determining whether you're satisfied or full, you may also experience similar difficulties with the concept of enough in other areas. With both intimates and strangers alike, you may find yourself alternately giving too much or too little. You may not know when to stop working or how to take adequate time for yourself. You may deprive yourself of es- sential things while overdoing it on nonessentials. If excess and deficiency, that is, the concept of too much or too little, is a theme in your life, learning what is enough food is an excellent way to begin to return to a healthy equilibrium. Achieving bal- ance in your life, having enough of this and that, depends on saying one of the two simplest words in the English language at just the right times.

How do I know when to say yes and when to say no to food?

Two of the earliest words we learn as children are yes and no. Generally we have learned to say them by the age of two or three. As we grow older, we acquire synonyms and euphemisms for yes and no, but the duo still remains a fundamental, em- phatic expression of our thoughts, feelings, needs, fears, and deep- est desires. When feminists of the 1970s wanted to communi- cate to men that women had the right to reject unwanted sexual advances, they came up with a simple message: "Yes means yes, and no means no". Short, easy to pronounce, with meanings that are unequivocal, the words yes and no are packed with power. Consider the fact that hearing them may fill us with immense joy or infuse us with intense sadness—or may even go so far as to make us want to live or die.

As a practicing psychotherapist, I often think that much of what mental health practitioners identify as emotional problems or dysfunctional personalities stems from what I call a basic yes- no disorder, which means saying yes and no at the wrong times. Too many people get it exactly backwards: they say yes (and dis- play moving-toward behavior) when they should be saying no, and they say no (and display moving-away behavior) when they should be saying yes. They gravitate toward people who are likely to harm them emotionally and retreat from people who are likely to help and support them. They say yes to self-destructive ac- tions and no to life-supporting ones.

Nowhere is the imbalance and misapplication of yes and no more apparent than in the food arena. In fact, we might say that restrictive and compulsive/emotional eating boils down to a basic problem of saying yes and no at the exact wrong times. Restrictive eaters almost always say no to food, whereas compul- sive/emotional eaters almost exclusively say yes. Both are out of balance with their wants and out of touch with their needs. The no sayers are afraid of excess, while the yes sayers fear depriva- tion. "Normal" eaters say yes and no to food at the appropriate times—appropriate because they trust their body to tell them the truth about what it needs, in a more or less balanced way.

If you are a restrictive eater struggling to get to "normal," your goal is to say yes to food on more occasions. If you are a compulsive/emotional eater, your goal is to say no more often. If you alternate between being a restrictive eater and a compul- sive/emotional eater, you're essentially ping-ponging back and forth between periods of too much yes and too much no. Your goal is to seek a reasonable balance.

Thinking in terms of increasing and decreasing yes and no responses to food may seem simplistic or even silly. Becoming a "normal" eater obviously involves more than automatically responding appropriately one way or the other when feeding yourself. However, thinking in terms of more or less yes and no can help point you in the right direction and move you toward feeling more balanced when you're around food. It will also give you practice in pushing yourself through the discomfort of do- ing more of what is good for you and less of what is bad. As you learn to say yes and no more appropriately to food, it will be easier to respond more appropriately in other areas of your life. Getting yes and no in the correct balance is an integral part of healthy self-care.