We asked one of Australia’s Eating Disorder Dietitians to answer your most commonly asked questions.
Accredited Dietitian Gabriella Barclay has over five years experience working with people with eating disorders.
She says she is often asked the same question:
An eating disorder can distort eating patterns and hunger cues so severely that the concept of ‘normal eating’ can feel completely out of reach.
The short answer is: Normal eating looks different for everyone.
“Every single person has a way of eating that feels relaxed and intuitive for them. There is no standardised or one size fits all rule for what normal eating looks like,” says Gabriella.
“It’s like finding that position that feels most comfy to fall asleep in at night – it’s different and unique to us all.”
Renowned dieititan and therapist Ellyn Satter provides this eloquent description about normal eating:
“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.”
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Gabriella says many people come to her wanting a step-by-step guide or a set of instructions for how to become a normal eater.
But that is not going to happen - there is simply too much variation in what ‘normal eating’ actually looks like.
“Being a ‘normal’ eater is within all of us,” says Gabriella.
“But getting back to eating normally is a unique process for every person I see. It inevitably takes time and it’s challenging!”
“The first step to get back to ‘normal eating’ is to eat regularly every three to four hours, to eat enough, and to include a variety of foods from all food groups.”
“That means eating carbohydrates, proteins, milk and dairy products, fruits and vegetables, and fats and sugars.”
For anyone with an eating disorder, eating regularly, eating enough and eating a variety of foods is likely to present a huge challenge. And thus, the road back to normal eating can be lengthy.
“You won’t all of a sudden wake up and be eating normally,” she says.
Gabriella says goal setting is vital. She sets weekly goals with her eating disorder clients, such as introducing a feared food or challenging an eating disorder rule.
“As each week passes and you focus on a new goal, you will notice that you are feeling more relaxed with food, that the eating disorder is not as loud, that the disordered rules are less stringent and that eating just feels more normal.”
One of the biggest challenges on the journey back to normal eating is learning to recognise and follow your body’s hunger and fullness cues.
Disordered eating very much disrupts the complicated mechanisms that control your sense of hunger and fullness.
Some people with an eating disorder say they do not experience hunger and fullness at all. Others report feeling extreme hunger cues, like extreme hunger and extreme fullness - and that these sensations come at random times.
“My clients are often left doubting that their body will be trustworthy enough to get them back to a place of normal eating,” Gabriella says.
The good news is that these errant hunger cues can be corrected with a bit of consistency.
“Eating a variety of foods regularly and sufficiently - in combination with being at a healthy weight – will stabilise and normalise hunger and fullness cues relatively quickly,” she says.
“This can build confidence and trust in one’s body, and it really raises hope in my clients that they are able to get back to being a normal eater.”
“It sounds a bit mysterious, but actually it all unfolds quite naturally and intuitively.”
Gabriella Barclay is an Accredited Practising Dietitian with more than five years experience working with eating disorders. She has worked as a consultant to the Eating Disorder Unit at Northside Clinic and The Butterfly Foundation. She has also worked in private practice in Sydney and Canberra. She is currently the Chair of the Eating Disorder Interest Group for the Dietitian’s Association of Australia.
Get support on your journey to recovery – find a Dietitian and Psychologist to help support you. See our Treatment Services Database for health professionals in your area.