When I was going through my eating disorder, I was hyper aware of what everyone else was eating. I focused on how much they were eating, what food choices they made, and when they would eat. Even in recovery, food comparison still gets to me from time to time.
In being so aware of everyone else’s food patterns, I started to notice that I wasn’t the only one with food issues. A LOT of the people that I was surrounded with also had food rules, engaged in diet culture, and restricted food intake.
I call true, normal eaters my “hidden treasures.” They are few and far between (unfortunately), but they are so valuable and important. To be honest, I probably only know about 5-10 people who truly embody normal eating, and surrounding myself with them has been a huge part of my eating disorder recovery.
Why is it important in eating disorder recovery surround yourself with normal eaters? Because they:
- Role model healthy food goals
- Give unconditional permission around food
- Add to the food enjoyment experience
- Encourage good food behaviors
- Show some basic mechanical eating guidelines when you’re on the path to intuitive eating
I personally feel WAY better when I eat around someone who:
- Finishes what’s on their plate
- Has seconds
- Orders a wide variety of foods
- Eats three meals a day and snacks
I personally feel way WORSE when I eat around someone who:
- Leaves food on their plate or picks at their food
- Is on a diet or is a picky eater
- Eats small meals
- Only orders salads or low-calorie options
What does normal eating look like? I’m going to give some great examples below featuring my lovely husband, Zack! He’s been pivotal in my recovery since we started dating a long time ago and is a rare, true model of normal and intuitive eating. See below for some WWZE (What Would Zack Eat) tips!
How to Spot A Normal Eater
Zack eats when he’s hungry. That means sometimes he eats lunch at 10:30am and then eats again at 2pm. If he didn’t get enough to eat at dinner because the portion sizes were too small then he’ll eat some chips for a snack. He’s usually really hungry when he gets home from work, so if dinner isn’t ready then he’ll eat a snack to tide himself over. If we’re out running errands and Zack is hungry, he’ll stop and get a sandwich, not wait. If we’re on vacation, he’ll try all the new and fun foods no matter what time of day it is (gelato any time of the day!)
Zack doesn’t cut out food groups or have “off limits” foods. He eats what he wants and doesn’t diet.
Zack suffers from intense “hanger” meaning that if he doesn’t eat then he becomes moody. Don’t we all? So he makes sure that he is eating enough to keep him focused and prioritizes full meals.
Zack likes to eat but his life doesn’t revolve around anticipating food or food choices. Food is a part of his life, but it’s definitely not the most important part. It’s something to be enjoyed, it’s fuel, it’s a treat, and that’s about it. Food would never be more important than work, fun, friends, or traveling.
This might initially sound like it’s not intuitive eating (“sometimes I’m full and don’t want to finish what’s on my plate!” “I’m at a 7 in fullness and I don’t want to take the last two bites of food!”) I would argue that, for the most part, eating what’s on your plate, a normal portion of food, is normal eating. Constantly not finishing your meal is a warning sign to me. Zack regularly finishes what’s on his plate, and usually will get seconds. Very rarely does he not eat his full meal.
Zack will always get the truffle fries, the beer, and the burger. Or the lamb with the creamy sauce. Or the Thai iced tea. The point is – if it sounds good, that’s what he’s getting. Every once in a blue moon he will order a salad, but it’s really rare. Going out to eat is fun and a chance to order whatever you want.
Side note: I’ve noticed that guys tend to be more in touch with intuitive eating than women. I think it’s due to the fact that men don’t face the systemic societal pressure that women do around their bodies and food (at least not historically to the same degree), and thus the chance of less rules around food is higher. Noticing this was helpful for me because I am honestly not a “guys girl” and I would much rather hang out with gal pals. Just something to think about if, like me, you have trouble finding people who are normal eaters in your life!
In summary, normal eaters give those recovering from eating disorders permission to engage in normal eating too. It takes out a lot of the comparison with food (or at least lowers it), which is such a huge mental hurdle in the early days of recovery. You surround yourself with people who are in line with your life values, so why wouldn’t that include values around food and recovery? That means intentionally cultivating people in your life who have healthy relationships with food, including good friends, significant others, and family members who you choose to spend time with.
Annie Kuni is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist, recovered from an eating disorder, and co-founded Gemmed.