Today, the definition of normal eating is blurry. It’s gotten lost amid buzz words like “diet,” “restriction,” “willpower” and “flat abs.” It’s sandwiched between the sizable stacks of “shoulds”: I should diet. I should abstain from dessert. I should count calories. I should avoid “bad” foods. I should have an invisible stomach, smaller hips and thin thighs.

While reading Purge: Rehab Diaries (stay tuned for the review) by Nicole Johns, about the author’s experiences in an eating disorder center, I came across the following definition of normal eating. It was created by Ellyn Satter, an expert on eating and feeding. Satter writes:

“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 love this definition. Why can’t eating be flexible and fun? Some days, you eat a heaping pile of veggies for your side; other days, you reach for a big piece of cake for dessert. Normal eating isn’t judgmental, either: You’re not a monster for munching on Mac ‘n’ Cheese (gasp! the regular kind!).

Another description of normal eating I really like is by Karly Randolph Pitman, founder of First Ourselves. She has an excellent article on normal eating on Divine Caroline. Here are some highlights:

I eat foods that make me feel good. I like a steak every now and then. A pizza is a favorite treat. I love colorful salads. Risotto is my idea of heaven. These things make me feel good, so I eat them. Sugar makes me depressed and wacks me out. Fried eggs give me the willies. Too many fake foods—think lots of processing and packaging—make me feel icky. So I usually abstain.

I eat what I really want. What I want to eat today may be different tomorrow. What I want in the winter may be different than what I crave in the summer. How nice that I can choose; that I don’t have to eat the same four things from a “good foods” list over and over again. Right now I’m in a raw fruit and vegetable phase, stemming from the heat wave we’re currently experiencing. But as the weather cools I crave warm, cooked vegetables and hearty soups. A few weeks ago, when my baby was going through a growth spurt (I’m a nursing mother), I had a hankering for nuts and nut butter. I followed my craving, got a spoon, and dove into the almond butter, without any guilt, shame, remorse or thoughts of calories.

I enjoy my food. I love food. I always have. And I’ve come to glory in that, rather than feel ashamed by it. Who started the lie, anyway, that women shouldn’t have an appetite? I’ve always had a hearty appetite, especially when I’m exercising regularly and nursing, as I am now. I have no qualms about getting a second helping, rather than undereating to be socially acceptable.

What’s striking is that our society — particularly mainstream media — promotes habits that reject these healthy principles. Restricting your diet is encouraged and applauded; eating an entire piece of cake because you want to (and because it tastes great!) must arouse guilty feelings and indicates that your willpower is seriously wilting; being a scrupulous detective who trolls for nutritional labels and counts calories means you’re doing everything right and you’re a good person; and finding ways to manipulate yourself into eating less by using microscopic plates or renouncing variety because you’re too volatile to choose your own meals is the key to being thin, beautiful and happy.

Some examples from Fitness magazine:

Make a plan and stick to it. Consuming the same simple, locally grown or organic foods week to week will help prevent you from resorting to last-minute fast-food (and unhealthy) meals. Avoid using treats, such as ice cream or other sweets, as a reward for a hard day.

Nutrition researcher David Katz, MD, won’t overexcite his taste buds while trying to lose weight. ‘The more variety of foods and flavors you introduce, the more appetite is stimulated,’ Dr. Katz explains. ‘If your diet resembles an all-you-can-eat buffet, you’re going to eat a lot.’ Dr. Katz also says that restricting meal options will help eliminate temptation. Redundancy is the safest bet.

Downsize your dishes. Unless our plates are full, we tend to feel cheated, like we haven’t eaten enough. So use a dessert dish for your entree.

Shape suggests another sneaky strategy:

Can’t help but splurge? Use the three-bite rule: Allow yourself to have just three bites of whatever you’re craving on special occasions. You can’t possible blow your diet big-time on three bites of anything. Be sure to get in a workout too – either in the morning or before you head out for the evening. You’ll be less likely to want to stray away from your diet after having put all that effort into it.

Even experts tend to vilify certain types of foods and categorize them as “bad,” “sinful” or “problem foods” that must be avoided at all costs. Some may tell you to ignore your snacking signals altogether.

Psychologist Judith Beck, Ph.D, tells Fitness:

I accept the fact that I may feel hungry an hour and a half before dinner,” Beck explains. “But I don’t have to satisfy my appetite by eating at that moment. I make the decision to wait.” If the yen won’t quit, she can break out that bite-size candy bar. Her other tactics:

Negotiate with temptations. Cravings can be harder to resist than hunger, because they attack at will and tug at your tongue. “I remind myself that the feeling is temporary and it’s not nearly as uncomfortable as when I broke my arm or pulled a muscle,” says Beck. “If I can tolerate that pain, I can resist the snacking impulse.” Besides, at least one chocolate indulgence has already been planned for.

As Pitman notes, you’ll find many experts with contradictory theories and you’ll stumble over a slew of diet tips and tricks. My version of normal eating is similar to Satter and Pitman’s. I enjoy eating and try to eat healthfully, but I refuse to feel guilty after devouring my daily piece of dark chocolate (or another dessert) or after eating fettuccine alfredo from my favorite restaurant.

What’s your version of normal eating? Do you agree with Satter and Pitman’s definition?