• October 14, 2022

How Do I Get Back To Normal Eating? | Imbodi Health Eating Disorder Dietitian Clinic

What is normal eating? Normal eating or ‘natural eating’ is a type of intuitive eating where you eat when you […]

What is normal eating?

Normal eating or ‘natural eating’ is a type of intuitive eating where you eat when you are hungry and stop when you’re full. (1) Where you can choose what to eat and when. Unfortunately, this ‘simple’ concept is forgotten when you suffer from disordered eating.

A major characteristic of disordered eating is ignoring or not experiencing hunger and satiety signals. Normal eating involves understanding that sometimes you will eat more one day than the other, that you might overeat, and that you can eat even when you might not be hungry.

This might sound quite basic to some people, but someone in the grips of disordered eating knows what a dream or goal this is!

Even after successfully gaining weight, many people who have suffered an eating disorder or restrictive behaviours will continue to exhibit repetitive behaviours to decrease anxiety about food. A recent systematic review underscored the importance of body-image concerns as mechanisms that perpetuate these behaviours. (2)

It takes a lot of trial and error and a lot of trust and understanding when getting back to normal eating. It is important to understand that it is not easy, and that there will be setbacks.

 

How did I become out of touch with normal eating?

Many things can allow you to become out of touch with normal eating. Diet culture, for example, is a set of beliefs that values thinness, body shape and general appearance above health and wellbeing. It emphasises being restrictive, encourages negative self-talk and labels food as “good” and “bad”.

Body shaming and diet culture have become so normalised that normal eating has become abnormal without concern. Social media has villainised normal eating by presenting a distorted reality through either naturally thin or unnaturally thin models due to dieting or editing. (3)

 

How do I start moving back towards normal eating?

It’s different for everyone, but it might be helpful to try and reflect on what normal eating used to look like for you. What did you use to do?

Try and eat exactly what appeals to you, including all the “good” and “bad”. To eat “normal”, you need to try your best to try and eliminate all the restrictions you may previously have. Through giving yourself unconditional permission to eat, even when you’re not necessarily hungry, you may find that you don’t want it.

 

Hunger and fullness cues

Try and listen to your hunger and fullness cues. This will hopefully help you stop restricting and binge eating. This may be harder for people who have been restricted for extended periods because their bodies are in “starvation mode”.

Starvation mode can cause mental hunger, where your body loses trust. It doesn’t feel safe to stop eating because it doesn’t believe it is a safe environment. In addition, it suppresses the “fullness” hormone leptin, which normally signals the brain to stop eating.

Doing this allows your body to “fuel up” before your next potential famine. To combat this, you need to show your body that there will be a reliable source of food and that its needs will be met, i.e. it’s safe to stop eating.

A study conducted in 2020 found that the brains of people with an eating disorder send signals from other regions that can override the hypothalamus, which would normally motivate people to eat. The study suggests that sufferers can condition the brain to reject hunger signals. (4)

The hypothalamus has a central role in energy homeostasis within the body, the brain circuitry that integrates taste, food reward, and cognitive-emotional associations with food.

You may need to listen to your mental hunger cues if you lack physical hunger cues. Many people say that if they were to listen to their thoughts, they would eat all day; in this case, that is what you should do.

In order to eat normally and feel those hunger cues again, you need to prove to your body that food is abundant. It also requires a lot of energy for your body to produce hunger cues and regulate digestion and metabolism.

In recovery, you need to relearn the skill of feeding yourself; otherwise, you’ll fall back into the pattern of restriction. 

 

Regular eating

A very common behaviour in people suffering from disordered eating is irregular, delayed or infrequent eating. For example, you’ll have created rules for yourself of when you are allowed to begin eating and possibly the quantity you are allowed. (5)

How much you eat would normally depend on your daily routine, including exercise, work, social life and sleep. However, when trying to normalise eating regularly and adequately, you may need to pay attention to when you’re eating and try eating every three hours.

Normal eating includes regular eating and having a variety of foods that support good health and wellbeing. Generally, regular eating means eating every few hours, including having breakfast, morning tea, lunch, afternoon tea, dinner and possibly an evening snack if you’re still hungry.

Through doing this you are preventing possible binge eating episodes, improving metabolic efficiency, improve digestion for example reducing prevalence of constipation and help maintain blood sugar levels.

 

Eating adequately

When trying to recover ensuring you are eating both quality foods and enough is important. Ensuring you are eating enough from each food group as well as meeting your energy needs and having adequate portions.

Even if you have to eat “safer” foods to begin with, that’s okay. Get used to eating enough at meal times and of good quality foods.

BOOK IN A FREE DISCOVERY CALL WITH OUR DIETITIANS
 

Food flexibility

Food flexibility  and variety usually goes out the window when restriction comes in. Eating things that you wouldn’t normally eat, at times you wouldn’t normally eat, become a source of stress. Eating flexibly and spontaneously without any second thought should be the goal.

Food flexibility is the cornerstone of normal eating. It incorporates variety and flexibility into your lifestyle in the long term. It’s a sustainable approach that values incorporating the “good” and “bad” foods whilst simultaneously breaking the “clean-eating” mindset and being able to enjoy foods unconditionally.

A restriction-based approach results in many biological adaptations, including but not limited to: increased hunger, decreased satiety, altered hormone production and a decreased energy expenditure. Research has found that a restrictive approach usually results in weight regain because it is unsustainable.

Research has found that there are typically two types of restraint: rigid control and flexible control. (7)

Rigid control is considered a more extreme approach known as an “all or nothing” approach. Strict rules and expectations are created by the individual, where they have set foods they are “allowed” to eat and those they aren’t.

Flexible control is a malleable, sustainable approach that allows for all types of foods from all food groups in moderation. This way of eating supports a healthy relationship with food.

 

enjoying fun foods such as pancakes are a part of getting back to normal eating

 

Rejecting the diet mentality

The diet mentality is difficult to steer away from. Many have voices telling them they aren’t good enough, that they need to lose weight, eat less food, etc. It’s hard to differentiate whether it’s yourself talking or the eating disorder talking. When the eating disorder is talking, it’s important to try and fight those voices, disobey its commands, and ignore its comments. Take control back.

The voices will stop. It will be hard, but the more you ignore the voice and its invalid and pointless comments, the easier you’ll be able to move on with your day and enjoy your meal.

 

 

Finding joy in food & eating socially

Ultimately, food is also more than just macro and micronutrients, it is also about being able to connect with others over food. Involves being able to eat at social events and help redevelop social connections with friends and families. These social networks help distract from your negative thoughts as you are more engaged in the conversation. It is an important part of recovery as you also begin to extend trust in food not being prepared by you.  (8)

 

Why should you eat spontaneously?

Eating spontaneously puts everything above into practice. It encourages intuitive eating and allows you to have more confidence and trust in your body cues. You will become less aware of the eating process but more eating for the experience and for enjoyment.

You will begin to say yes to going out to dinner even though it wasn’t planned earlier and you already had a certain meal in mind. You will feel a sense of relief and freedom. Your mind no longer dictates what you can and can’t do, or what you feel about certain things. You’ve regained control.

 

enjoying food socially

 

How to start enjoying food again

An experience repeatedly reported by those with an eating disorder is that you no longer enjoy eating; it becomes a chore. Food rules ruin the enjoyment that usually comes with food. You’ll eat the same things for breakfast, lunch and dinner because you consider them “safe”.

Normality is very individualised based on your experience but here are a few things that you could try:

  • Incorporate one of your “favourite foods” into your meal plan.
  • Try and eat three meals a day with snacks in between.
  • Try a “fear food” and evaluate how you feel afterwards. Ignore the voice; you can eat whatever you want and whenever you want.
  • Challenge a food rule (for example, the timing of your meal and snacks).
  • Try a new food.
  • Go out to dinner with friends or family.
  • Eat what you crave, regardless of whether you’re hungry or not.

Get out of your comfort zone and ignore food rules or “forbidden” foods.

Detach morality from food. Just because you eat some cake or chocolate does not make you “dirty” or “gross” or a bad person. No food is better than another. Ultimately, they are all food, processed the same way, and provide energy.

Honour your hunger and fullness. You will feel hungrier some days than others, and that is normal. You may have expended more energy that day or the previous; your hormone levels may have changed. If you are hungry – eat. If you are full – stop. If you overeat – that’s okay too. Trust yourself.

 

Finally…

Make food choices that honour your health and tastebuds. Remember, healthy eating is not eating clean foods 100% of the time. Healthy eating is having a healthy balance of foods whilst maintaining a healthy relationship with food. This won’t be easy. But remember, nothing worthwhile is ever easy. You are worthwhile. Your health is worthwhile.

If you’re looking to improve your relationship with food, breakup with diet culture and make peace with your body, book in to work with the Imbodi Health Eating Disorder Dietitians in our 1:1 coaching and group coaching programs.

BOOK IN A FREE DISCOVERY CALL WITH OUR DIETITIANS
 

Article written by: Student Dietitian Emma Ware-Maloney

Reviewed by: Imbodi Health Dietitian Team

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