Is My Eating Normal?
One of the biggest concerns many clients have with their eating is if they’re doing it “right”. They want to do as best for their health as they’re able, but with messages coming from all directions it is easy to get confused, discouraged, and ultimately defeated. That is often when they look to an authority figure or “guru” for a definitive answer. As is true with clothing, a one size fits all answer rarely lives up to its name.
There is no one right way of eating. There are many diet patterns, food preferences, cultural cuisines that allow humans to be well nourished in all parts and climates of the globe. We have determined common elements that appear to support health including an emphasis on less-processed and high fibre foods, as wide a variety of plants as able, and a balance of plant and animal-based proteins. These provide adequate nutrient intake and can be achieved through endless combinations of foods and ingredients. Humans are an incredibly adaptable and resilient species.
Humans remain individuals, down to our biochemistry. It’s statistically impossible that with all the variations in genes, environments, and human microbiomes that all 7 billion of us would have identical experiences with the same eating pattern. As is often said in nutrition circles, every diet (or diet pattern) will support good health for someone, but no one diet pattern will do the same for everyone.
Bodies are not static machines requiring precise and consistent inputs to produce exact outputs. Our energy and nutrient needs vary through the day, month, and through the lifespan. There is ebb and flow inherent to all our body systems; we understand that everything from heart beats per minute to bone density supports health and body functions over a range of values. The same is true for hunger and nutrient needs.
The health – eating pattern connection goes beyond our nutrient intake and energy output. Food availability and food skills, taste preferences, and our emotional connection with how and why we eat influence our experience of “wellness” on any given diet pattern. For most of the species, enjoyment in eating is an innate and important part of nourishing ourselves.
Thinking of diet patterns as right or wrong opens the door for judgement, prejudice, blame, and supremacy, none of which are shown to be effective at supporting the health and wellbeing of individuals or societies. A more helpful approach is looking at eating well as a set of skills and habits that a person feels confident in using in their daily lives. Renowned dietitian and therapist Ellyn Satter developed a definition of “normal” eating to figure out how much a person has developed these skills. The more of these normal eating skills, the higher the likelihood that person can maintain a nourishing diet that supports wellbeing. As she puts it at the end of the definition, “In short, normal eating is flexible; it varies in response to your hunger, your schedule, your food, and your feelings”. Rather than thinking “am I eating right?”, it may be more helpful to explore “how many normal eating skills do I have?”. Working with your nutrition counsellor, you can use this as the basis of a normal eating patterns that meets all of your individual needs for wellbeing.