After an eating disorder, it’s important to relearn how to be a “normal eater.” This can be complicated, because eating disorders rob us of our intuitive and natural relationship with food.
Parents can help their child recover from an eating disorder by encouraging and modeling a normal relationship with food.
It is important to define what it means to be a normal eater. Most people in our diet-obsessed culture have at least slightly disordered eating. This includes a range of behaviors from a fear of gaining weight, restricting calories and even eliminating entire categories of food such as animal products, carbohydrates, sugar, fats, etc.
A normal eater does not experience intense fear when eating food. Nor do they experience intense cravings and persistent insatiable hunger. When we eat normally, there’s no need to obsess about food.
Eating normally means you typically eat when hungry and stop when full. Of course everyone has food preferences, but eating normally means recognizing that sometimes we just need to eat what is available. Sometimes we need to eat when we don’t feel hungry because we know that they will be hungry soon. Normal is fluid and responsive vs. rigid and uniform.
Becoming a normal eater after an eating disorder
Normal eating doesn’t feel natural or right when you have an eating disorder. When we first enter recovery we need practice and patience. Normal eating can replace our disordered relationship with food and our bodies and help us find peace.
Each of us recovers from an eating disorder in our own way.We are not suggesting that the following are required for every person.
1. Be free from diet culture
Diet culture promotes the idea that weight loss is a good and healthy pursuit in life. When we recover from an eating disorder, we must work to eradicate the belief that our health and self-worth are based on our weight. This is hard, because diet culture is absolutely everywhere.
Most of us who have an eating disorder have a deep fear of weight gain. Even if we can see other people at higher weights and think they look fine, we do not accept that our bodies should do anything other than get smaller. These feelings are complex and go beyond weight. But they are also rooted in our cultural belief that we can and should control our bodies.
To recover from an eating disorder, we must discard our fear of getting fat and face diet culture head-on.
To free ourselves, we must repeatedly assure ourselves that diet culture is a liar based on completely faulty evidence. We must remind ourselves that our bodies can be healthy at any size.
Slowly, we will establish a truce with our bodies. We may never achieve full love for our bodies, but we can definitely achieve acceptance.
2. Stop tracking, measuring and weighing food to restrict
Some of us who are in recovery may need to track, measure and weigh our food to make sure we get enough to eat. In many cases, our eating disorder-trained nutritionist will put together a meal plan that we must follow in order to reach our recovery goals. We should continue with these programs until our dietician tells us we can transition to a more intuitive way of eating.
Once we have the go-ahead from our recovery team, we can get rid of our calorie counting apps, measuring devices and scales that we have previously used to control and restrict our food intake. Normal eaters do not weigh their food. They eat what they want (or what is available), when they are hungry and stop when they are full.
This feels impossible when we have been counting, measuring and controlling in our eating disorder. But we simply must free ourselves from restrictive food measurement in order to recover. We must relearn our intuition around hunger and fullness and practice listening to our bodies, not measuring devices.
If we experience increased binge eating or restriction in response to this freedom from tracking, measuring and scales, then we need to continue to work with a therapist to unpack our underlying psychology. For most of us, after an initial awkward period, we will begin to receive our body’s feedback and trust that we can eat the amount of food we need. We will gradually stop seeing food and eating as a challenge. We will be free.
3. Stop judging food as “good” or “bad”
It’s going to take a lot of time to recover our natural instincts for what we actually enjoy eating. This is because we have trained ourselves with our eating disorders to believe that certain foods are “good” and others are “bad.” Training ourselves to eat normally and in accordance with our appetite instead of a weight-loss plan, anxiety, and fear, will be a long-term process. We can begin by slowly releasing foods from the prison of our judgement.
If our eating disorder fear foods include ice cream and butter, it’s going to be hard to eat those things. We may even say that we don’t like them. But we can try them and practice incorporating them into our diet. After trying them, we may decide that we really don’t like the way they taste, and that’s fine. But we need to make sure that this is really about taste, and not our eating disorder trying to control us. This takes time, practice and, above all, patience.
We have to start by never again calling food “good” and “clean,” or “bad” and “cheating.” Food is just food. It has no moral qualities. Unless we haven’t washed it, all food is clean. The food we eat is not a reflection of our righteousness as individuals.
Eventually, we will believe that any food can fit into our lives. We will learn that we have preferences and we have cravings. But we never feel out of control around food again because we’re allowed to eat anything we want to eat.
4. Feed hunger
When we need to pee, we don’t wonder whether we really need to pee. We just go. When we are thirsty, we don’t question our thirst. We just drink. When we need to blink, we don’t second-guess our eyes. We just blink.
Hunger is a natural and healthy urge that our bodies use to tell us it’s time to eat. Our culture and billion-dollar companies tell us that we need to “overcome” hunger with tricks, but that’s unnecessary. When we are hungry, we should eat.
Sure, people who have a tendency to binge eat may need to learn to check in on hunger to make sure that it’s coming from the body and not an emotional need that can be met in other ways, but this has been over-emphasized. Emotional eating has been turned into a condition to be overcome, when it’s actually not. Once we have gone through the first three steps, over-eating, mindless eating and emotional eating will all happen rarely, and when they do, it’s not a big deal.
Hunger cues are a little different for everyone. Most of us who have eating disorders have numbed our normal hunger cues and only notice our STARVING cues (which we can also train ourselves to ignore). Recognizing hunger is actually an advanced skill in recovery, which is why many of us start off with meal plans or at least eating on a schedule to help us in the early stages of rebuilding our mind-body connection when it comes to food.
So much hunger!
Once we start to learn our hunger cues, we may be surprised or even frightened by how often we are hungry and how many times per day we need to eat. We need to keep snacks available so that we can respond to our hunger cues every time (or at least as often and as soon as possible) we feel it. This is how we rebuild body trust and relearn intuition. When we are in recovery we must feed our hunger reliably and completely as if it were a tiny puppy in our care. We wouldn’t restrict a puppy, and we must not restrict our body’s hunger.
Over time, we will gradually begin to pick up on hunger cues earlier and more reliably. We will begin to trust our body when it tells us it’s hungry. Sometimes we’ll get too hungry, and sometimes we’ll get uncomfortably full, but we try not to get starving, and we can reliably count on the fact that we can eat whenever we get hungry.
5. Be flexible
Someone who has had an eating disorder has been dealing with disordered eating thinking and behaviors for a long time. We have been actively and forcefully ignoring our body’s intuition, striking it down every time it tries to communicate with us. We have been rigid in our thinking and behavior.
To heal, we have to find a new pattern, a new way of eating that works for us. This becomes our own personal “normal.” Some of us may stick to a regular schedule and feed ourselves fairly set portions and meals. Others of us may be very flexible and “follow our hunger” every day, eating more some days, less on other days.
Exactly when and what we eat is less important than how we feel about eating. Our goal in recovery is to achieve a peaceful co-existence with food and be neither obsessed or afraid of what we are eating and how much we are eating.
It is natural and normal to experience recovery as a winding road, not a straight line. Sometimes we will under-eat. Sometimes we will over-eat. Some of us may purge. Some of us may really struggle with becoming a normal eater after our eating disorder. What matters is that we observe what’s going on, reach out for help, gather our resources, and begin again.
Parents can help kids become normal eaters after eating disorders
The best thing a parent can do to help their child become a normal eater after an eating disorder is to support and practice normal eating. This means we need to look at areas in which we are restricting and controlling our food, and learn to reject diet culture. It can require changes that we may not like, but our efforts can make a significant impact on our kids’ recovery.
Ginny Jones is on a mission to empower parents to raise kids who are free from eating issues, body shame and eating disorders.
She’s the founder of More-Love.org and a Parent Coach who helps parents navigate disordered eating, eating disorder recovery, and other challenging emotional and behavioral issues.