Saturday, March 19, 2011

Normal Eating Taken Too Far?

Learning to accept a less-than-perfect diet
Soon after entering practice as a Registered Dietitian back in the 1980s, I stumbled upon the most brilliant piece on eating, written by Ellyn Satter. It is timeless, and full of wisdom. So I wanted to share it with you and to share my thoughts on it.
“Normal eating is going to the table hungry and eating until you are satisfied. It is being able to choose food you like and eat it and truly get enough of it -not just stop eating because you think you should. Normal eating is 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. Normal eating is giving yourself permission to eat sometimes because you are happy, sad or bored, or just because it feels good. Normal eating is mostly three meals a day, or four or five, or it can be choosing to munch along the way. It is leaving some cookies on the plate because you know you can have some again tomorrow, or it is eating more now because they taste so wonderful. Normal eating is overeating at times, feeling stuffed and uncomfortable. And it can be undereating at times and wishing you had more. Normal eating is trusting your body to make up for your mistakes in eating. Normal eating takes up some of your time and attention, but keeps its place as only one important area of your life.
In short, normal eating is flexible. It varies in response to your hunger, your schedule, your proximity to food and your feelings.” Copyright © 2010 by Ellyn Satter.
(For more about eating competence (and for research backing up this advice), check out Rights to reproduce: As long as you leave it unchanged, you don't charge for it, and you include the entire copyright statement, you may reproduce this article. Please let us know you have used it by sending a website link or an electronic copy to
I vividly recall first reading this and being a bit shocked. “Give yourself permission to eat sometimes because you are happy, sad or bored…”?! That seems to fly in the face of what we should be doing to manage our eating and our weight! But then I took a closer look. The key word in this sentence is sometimes. Because even mindful eating isn’t all or nothing. 

Yes, we are trying to move toward better matching our body’s need for fuel, for food, with what we feed it, based on our physical hunger. But we are only human. And sometimes we eat just because the food is there. Or, because there is something to celebrate. And sometimes we eat because it is our familiar way of comforting ourselves. And sometimes we eat, even overeat, knowingly, because we haven’t yet learned how to sit with distress. So we go to what is familiar in order to get by, to cope.

Archery has never been my thing. In fact, I never even heard of it growing up in Brooklyn, New York. But here’s an analogy that provides a visual that somehow I could relate to. To manage our eating, we are moving toward trying to hit a bull’s eye on a target. That center circle, that scores the most points, is our goal. But starting off, we may never have even noticed that a target existed. Perhaps we didn’t even have the right tools. (There were no bows and arrows in my neighborhood growing up.) We didn’t even know which direction to aim for, to shoot in. And so the potential damage was great.

With some awareness, we may see the target, but it may take a lot of practice to even hit the outer ring. And that would be progress. But we need to continue to work at it.  To assist, we need to remove distractions around us that steal our focus. Taking lessons and observing from those who have mastered it before us further improves our skill. We need to appreciate how far we’ve come—to recognize that now we’re at least hitting a ring, versus the feeling of chaos of random shooting-as opposed to focusing on the fact that we haven’t hit dead center yet. And, to have the patience until we finally reach even that point.

And we need to believe in ourselves, and to get support from others who believe in us. And as we continue to practice, we will begin to trust our bodies and ourselves. We will learn, as Ellyn Satter states, that it’s okay to give yourself permission to eat what you enjoy and that even if you overeat sometimes, your body, believe it or not, is forgiving.

As always, I welcome your thoughts!


  1. I love this post. Even at my "sickest," my body could, amazingly, perform a lot of the functions I required of it. Not only is the human body forgiving, easily dealing with fluctuations in caloric intake, but it is also remarkably strong, continuing to support us, regardless of how much we abuse it. It's so easy to forget that and instead get caught up in how much we hate how it looks; whenever I get caught in that distorted thinking, this post will serve as my reality-check! Thanks, Lori :)

  2. I appreciate the gentleness of this approach to eating. That we are human. We do err. We do have to work at moving closer to the target. We do need to LEARN. It's PROGRESS, not perfection. I related to having difficulty "sitting with distress" and to overeating. I'm moving away from mindless eating towards more CONSCIOUS eating, and making CHOICES. Geez, those beautiful pastel cupcakes again that I avoided last Saturday night! I know I have choices, and I can decide which food I do or do not put into my mouth. That nothing is "forbidden"! After years of an unhealthy relationship with food, I'm wanting to find peace in my relationship with food, a healthy relationship. One that isn't so volatile! Or so black and white. So I thank you for this article and again the gentleness. I can forgive myself for eating too much Chinese food when I went out tonight. I'm "in range" but not "on target".... but I am feeling confident that I CAN move in that direction! "I think I can, I THINK I CAN!"

  3. @Hannah
    The risk of your body being so forgiving, of course, is that it is easy to be in denial when things appear to be just fine--but aren't! Glad the post is helpful.
    @ Quincy Carole
    Great to be appreciating the positive shifts. That approach is way more normal than what you've learned in any diet program!

  4. Wow, thank goodness you discovered that piece of writing so early on in your career - I can see how much it has shaped your philosophy of honoring your hunger.
    I think my favourite word is 'flexible'. Something I remember being and something I am working on right now. 'Normal' does not include the same foods at the same times everyday. Day in and day out. What I am struggling with is (becoming) less about the need to be rigid, and more about how cross I feel at myself for starting to let go of my routines. But I'm looking forward to the day when I eat something and then realise that I didn't give it a second thought - then I'll know I'm at least hitting the target!