November 08, 2016

What is “Normal” Eating? A New Way to Talk About Food - Jennifer Sommer-Dirks

what is normal eatingI get asked frequently about the words “normal” and “healthy” as they relate to diet and food by both patients and family members.

I commonly hear, “Well, isn’t it ‘normal’ to eat this? Isn’t that food ‘unhealthy’ to eat?’” These are complicated questions that don’t have a straightforward answer.

The messages we receive about food and nutrition are often conflicting and sometimes downright scary.  And, unfortunately, a lot of the messages come with a lot of judgement about the foods we chose to eat or avoid. We are constantly bombarded with messages about the “best” or “healthiest” way to eat.
  • Eat this “good” food to improve your health.
  • Avoid that “bad” food to feel better!
  • Coffee will make us live longer one day — and kill us the next.
After spending over six years working with people suffering from eating disorders, I’ve come to develop some strong beliefs about health and nutrition that I’d like to share.

Food is fuel

First of all, I don’t use the word “normal” because “normal” is all relative. Even “healthy” can’t be used as a blanket statement, because what is healthy for one person may not be for another. For instance, almonds may be touted as a health food, but if you are allergic to them they are certainly not healthy for you!

I also don’t believe in good or bad foods. That is putting a lot of judgment on the food, which often becomes judgment on ourselves if we eat that food.

When it comes to being non-judgmental about food I always give the example of water. Water tends to be thought of as good, and it’s true that we need it to survive. However, if you drink too much, you can dilute your electrolytes, feel awful, and even die.

Water is not good or bad. Food is not good or bad. We need these things, but should not overdo them either. So instead of using those terms, I use the term “eating well,” as it’s much more broad.

Eating well — is based on the principle that food is fuel at its core, but sometimes it’s so much more. Instead of labeling foods as good or bad, I like to describe foods by their nutritional productivity. Some foods are more productive, meaning they are high in nutrients (vitamins, minerals, amino acids, fiber, essential fats etc.) and other foods are less productive, meaning lower in those nutrients.

Nutritional productivity — also depends on your reason for eating the food. For instance, during and after exercise, simple carbohydrates (i.e. white bread) are absorbed more quickly which is actually a good thing! So, when it comes to exercising, white bread is more productive.

If you are eating well by my definition you are probably eating both productive foods and less productive foods. Notice I am not saying “unproductive foods”? That’s because even foods that are low in nutrients are still providing calories, so they are still giving our bodies fuel.

And, to mention another term, there is really no such thing as “empty calories” as that implies there is nothing in them, which is physiologically impossible.

Here’s how to eat well

Nutrition is not the only reason to eat. We eat for social reasons, we eat because of emotions, and sometimes we eat just because the food is there. As long as it’s all in moderation, that’s okay! Here are five of my tips that I think exemplify “eating well”:
  1. Choose from a wide variety of foods, of varying nutritional productivity.
  2. Let go of any food rules such as labeling foods as good or bad.
  3. Do not deny yourself any food, as this often leads to overdoing it with that food down the road.
  4. Listen to your body’s internal hunger cues while also being aware of how your own emotions or external factors influence your satiety cues.
  5. Let food be fuel first, but also a way to celebrate and enjoy life.
Eating well is letting food be a part of your life, but not the center of it.

Jennifer Sommer-Dirks, MS, RD, CSSD is Nutrition Manager at Eating Recovery Center.
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