When a message board member questioned the difference between “normal” and healthy eating, I browsed through my blogs and was surprised I hadn’t blogged on the subject. What an important one it is. “Normal” and healthy eating are not the same, but each has tremendous value.

“Normal” eating means being guided by appetite: eating when hungry, making satisfying choices, eating with awareness and enjoyment, and stopping when full or satisfied. The focus is internal, on responding to body signals. When you eat “normally,” you use instinct and judgment together to reach a goal of having a satisfying food experience. On the other hand, healthy eating, or what I’d call eating for nutritional value, has a goal of consuming foods that are beneficial for your body in terms of disease prevention, optimal health, and longevity. Nutritional eating is externally focused, ie, reading labels, considering fat, sugar and salt content, forgoing processed foods, eating organic, etc.

A person can fall into three categories: 1) a “normal”/unhealthy eater; 2) a healthy/not “normal” eater (who overeats, undereats, or obsesses about fat grams, calories, or the purity of food), or 3) a “normal”/healthy eater. The ultimate goal of disregulated eaters, of course, is to become nutritionally-minded “normal” eaters. But if you’re just learning and practicing “normal” eating, you would be wise not to pressure yourself to eat nutritionally too quickly. Often, if “normal” eating skills have not had sufficient time to take root (many months to a couple of years, may I remind you), when you eat mostly “healthy” foods, you may feel as if you’re dieting or depriving yourself of foods you love. These “healthy” choices might trigger deprivational rebound eating. Disregulated eaters in early recovery often feel as if choosing salad or fruit causes them to feel as if they’re back on a diet, which can set off mindless eating.

When your beliefs and behaviors around food seem close to “normal” for several months, try tweaking your choices toward better nutrition: natural rather than processed food, low- rather than full-fat, fiber-rich foods, increasing intake of fruits and vegetables, broiling rather than frying, and lowering salt intake. Go slowly and gradually move toward becoming a nutrition-focused eater, all the while attending to how this kind of eating makes you feel. If you start to feel deprived or want to rebel, address those concerns on the spot, reframe whatever beliefs are driving unwanted eating, and return to focusing on appetite guidelines. Be warned: Rushing the process will only derail your “normal” eating efforts.