What is healthy eating? “Normal” eating? A meditation of awareness

I often write about food and eating-related topics on my blog, because these issues are very close to my heart and to my professional career.  I began pondering the other day the questions of: how do you define healthy eating?  What is ‘normal’ eating?  At what point does being ‘healthy’ or ‘on a diet’ become….unhealthy? (I personally don’t think being on a diet is ever truly healthy).

This is a complex topic and one that professionals as well as people who have recovered from eating disorders (or any type of food-related problem) continue to debate.  I think this debate is healthy in its own right.  As we are all humans with our own unique experiences, we all need to define for ourselves where healthy eating can cross the line into emotional and physical distress…and possibly an eating disorder.  Going on a diet or exercising extensively do not necessarily cause an eating disorder such as anorexia nervosa, bulimia, or binge eating disorder.  However these behaviors are the “gateway drug” to eating disorders, and the control aspect of them can very easily lead to the development of a dangerous eating disorder.  Check out www.eatingdisorderfoundation.org for lots more information on the statistics of diets leading to EDs, and other pertinent danger signs and treatment recommendations.  You can also check out and download my handout Fifteen signs of an eating disorder.

As a psychotherapist specializing in body- and eating-related issues, I often work with nutritionists and dieticians to help my clients define a healthy and balanced diet for their unique needs.  Depending on our activity level, height, and genetic makeup, we all require different amounts of calories and nutrients on a daily basis to have energy, cognitive functioning, and physical ability.  I have written in my blog before about the updated recommendations for the food guide pyramid by the federal government.  These are not set in stone requirements for everyone, but can give a general idea on what are healthy portions and types of foods to eat daily.

How do you know what is healthy for you?  How is the physical state of our health related to the mental state of our health?  We all have a ‘set point’, a weight that our bodies will naturally stay at (within a few pounds) when we have consistently been treating our bodies with adequate exercise and nutrition.  Sometimes, when we feel pressure to control our bodies or control other parts of our lives such as social environment and physical acceptance, it can seem like an ‘easy solution’ to control the way our bodies look.  Society tells us that when our bodies look perfectly svelte like the actresses we see in movies, then we will be socially popular, we will ‘get the guy (or girl)’, we will be smart, we will have money, and everyone will want to be us.  Then everything will be perfect and fine.  Right?

How damaging those messages are.  Men and women are constantly bombarded with messages from society — whether it is in a magazine, on television or in a movie, or through an expectation from a sports team to compete at your ‘optimal physical shape’, we all are told every day that we should look a certain way and that this will bring us things we really want.  That there is only one way to do it, creating a tunnel of dualistic thinking — and it must be in pursuit of perfection.   Even if the way we ‘should’ look is very different from where our natural set point and body shape would rest, this ‘perfect’ complex can obtain a sparkly shine and can be the ONE THING WE MUST OBTAIN.  What happens when we get there?  When we get to the ‘perfect’ weight, or we get ‘perfect’ grades (perfectionism spans all areas of one’s life)?

Much of this pressure is about acceptance, but in a very warped way.  We want to be accepted by the people who have power, which are the rich and skinny people who seem to ‘have it all’.  They are ‘happy’!  However, the harsh reality is that we will never find acceptance at all until we can truly accept ourselves.  In fact, we can damage our physical and emotional health to very scary extremes if we try to change who we are in order to be accepted by a friend or family member.  I am a huge fan of the organization Health at Every Size, which promotes body-acceptance and self-love.  This organization calls itself “the new peace movement”.  I love that!

So, I don’t think I even came close to defining what healthy eating is (which is the point….it’s different for each of us but requires one common ingredient: balance).  What about normal eating?  This one is even more tricky, and for each client I work with, it is different.  I like to think of normal eating as: starting to eat when you are not starving, and stopping when you are satisfied.  Now, this in an of itself requires balance — sometimes you may be starving when you start eating for one reason or another, and sometimes you may overeat.  The key factor is: trusting your body.  Your body will digest the food.  You will have another opportunity to eat.  Your body knows what it needs.  Listen to it, and trust it.  Those messages we get told every day are the antithesis of this concept.  How did we get so skewed?  Where did we get told that we shouldn’t listen to our bodies?  And why do we listen to that??

I encourage your own thoughts, feedback, and reflections on your experiences.  This post is a meditation on my own personal experience coupled with my clinical training and philosophy.  And, as with everything, the debate is always lively on this topic because we are all human beings, living our own lives, with our own outlooks — and striving for balance.

For more fodder for your thoughts, check out this blog post from HAES about “loving your body WON’T kill you!”