Sunday, August 30, 2009

What Is Normal Eating?

I was sitting in McDonald's eating an Oreo McFlurry when I first read Tara Parker-Pope's Wellness blog entry titled "What Is 'Normal' Eating?" I was on a "working vacation" in a town where the best option for Wi-Fi was Mickey D's, and after four hours of copy editing when I really just wanted to be at the beach, I was irritated and thought an Oreo milkshake-like concoction would soothe my soul. In the piece, Parker-Pope quotes a definition of "normal eating" as given by nutritionist Ellyn Satter:

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.

I had a strong gut reaction (heh, heh) when I read Parker-Pope's main question: What is 'normal' eating? And I couldn't have scripted it better, what with the cultural and personal issues leading me to make unhealthy food choices: I don't usually eat at McDonald's, but there I was for lack of a better option -- not foodwise, but convenience-wise. And I was stressed and feeling put-upon and not doing a great job of walking the work-life tightrope, so I displaced my stress with food. But from the comments on the thread -- nay, from the existence of the post itself -- it was clear that my Wi-Fi McFlurry was far from some little blip on my own little trajectory. Satter's words should sound as ridiculous as "Normal breathing is through the nose, or sometimes the mouth..." -- but they don't. The mere fact that "normal" eating has to be written out in such a careful way shows how something that appears utterly achievable is, in fact, unachievable for so many.

The comments on the post (which garnered more than double the amount of comments of any other recent post on the Times Wellness blog) are frequently exactly the contrary to Satter's wise words. Among them: Eat only until 60% full. No snacks. No omega-6 oils (I didn't know what those were either). Go vegan. More than half the comments are basically echoing what Satter is saying, but given the essence of the post, the number of rules posted is interesting.

"Why can't eating be flexible and fun?" the author of the World of Psychology post that Parker-Pope points to, Margarita Tartakovsky, writes. Here's why: Because in the face of the actual reasons that drove our culture to become so messed-up about food, inflexibility and rigidity became concrete tools we could use to make sense out of it all, to feel as though we were taking some sort of action, however minute, to combat the poisoned mind-set we're in. We've got the industrialization of food production; the lack of community togetherness that drove us from bridge clubs to our television sets and bags of Doritos (related to McDonald's willingness to step in as community center, complete with Wi-Fi for working vacationers); the families of all socioeconomic classes trading home-cooked meals for "home meal replacements"; the sedentary jobs; the Coke machines in the middle schools; the beauty myth; the focus on restrictive eating; fat as a feminist issue. So you beef up on your Michael Pollan and "Fast Food Nation" and maybe read your Susie Orbach -- and then what? Awareness of the issues is a great first step, but it leaves the individual sort of in a no-man's land, aware that you're not eating "normally" but grasping in the fog for a way to begin doing so. The easiest navigation tool around is those food rules, especially if the sociological food issues you're steeped in have served to make you one of the majority of Americans who are overweight. Stop drinking soda. Don't eat after 8 p.m. Park your car farther away in the parking lot. These rules do some good, sure -- at the very least they don't hurt -- but for so many they're placeholders for the real issues that feel too enormous to even attempt to tackle.

I joined a CSA as one leg of my personal/political combat against being messed-up about food. It has undoubtedly made me a healthier eater; every week I have fresh kale and cucumbers I've gotta use or waste my money. But it has done crap to make me a normal eater. Even in my conscious attempt to personally contradict industrialization and depersonalization of food, I find that I'm still left swimming in the dark. I make my kale, then binge-eat sweets -- because that is my abnormality, the way I've chosen, albeit without ever meaning to choose it, to deal with my set of personal and cultural circumstances in regards to food.

I would love to be Satter's mythical "normal" eater, but I see her as exactly that: mythical. I picture her as the sort of person who can buy a Kit-Kat bar and save half of it for later -- and who, more importantly, would be prone to forgetting about the bar until she stumbled across it wrapped up in her desk drawer the next day. But then I think of my friends who can do exactly that, and they're not "normal" eaters either: I remember watching one of them plug all of her daily food intake into a nutrition tool on the web and reciting the day's vitamin intake out loud as though this were just what everyone did at day's end. Even the people I know who naturally gravitate toward a healthy diet yet don't preoccupy themselves with nutritional natter or body checks have their own food-control issues: I think of my father, one of those lucky folks, who gets fussy if foods of different consistencies wind up comingling in the slightest on his plate.

All this is to say that I wish to sign on to Satter's plan. I wish to sign on in ink and blood -- I just don't know what to do to make it a reality. My own signing on becomes an act of resistance, not an act of forward motion: I resist against the abnormal eating that has surrounded me as an American, as a woman. Every part of Satter's credo is so general, so obvious to anyone who has not been steeped in a food-crazy culture, that I have trouble navigating it without rules. There's no magazine cover line called "10 Ways to Have a Normal Relationship With Food." And if there were, I'm sure it would work as well as "Lose 5 Pounds in 5 Days" -- that is, not at all.


  1. Two things:

    1. That definition strikes me as so broad that it could easily be used to justify pretty much any eating behavior you can dream up short of purging. It might as well say "normal eating is doing whatever you feel like with food".

    2. I don't think there has ever been such a thing as a normal eater, not on a cultural scale. For practically the whole of human history, food was pretty much worry #1 - whether in hunter gatherer societies or in farming societies, any little fluke in nature could spell mass starvation. During times of food prosperity everything possible was done to store and preserve, because everyone knew it wasn't going to last. Until very recently, this endless supply of food we know was completely unthinkable.

    Then suddenly we industrialize the process and before we even know it, bam - we're making more food than we know what to do with. At least here in the good ol' US of A, we throw out as much food as we eat. So we're all faced with the paradox of choice - so many options thrown at us that we can't make a decision. (And increasingly, many of those choices so processed that they barely even qualify as food.) Add on top of that the fact that our food supply is completely controlled by the people trying to make money off of it, doing everything as cheaply as possible and advertising to us as loudly as possible from every angle they can dream up, jamming our heads with half truths...

    As far as I'm concerned, anyone who doesn't have just a touch of disordered eating is a little bit of a miracle.

  2. I think the definition is a good one. It's basically saying that we all do the best we can; sometimes we slip up and sometimes we're right on track. Maybe it is broad, but I'm just happy to fall under the "normal" category! Whenever I overeat, I beat myself up about it so much, and assume that no one else on earth would ever eat three pieces of pizza and a pint of ice cream just because they were feeling down. But I know that's not true.