Normal eating.

Who started the lie, anyway, that [we] shouldn’t have an appetite?


I have been thinking for some time about how we don’t know how to talk about our bodies. That the language we use (at least in the English-speaking and Hebrew- speaking worlds, where I can hold conversations and read what folks write) to discuss weight, shape, and health is so warped, so freighted with moral implication and the post-modern delusion that science grants us control, that it is no longer a vehicle for communication — because none of us really understands what everyone else is talking about. We may not even be sure about ourselves.

Most of the freight, of course, is dumped with a mighty THUMP on top of the seemingly benign issue of eating. Every living thing needs fuel to survive; the human animal feeds itself off and on over the course of 24 hours; the human lives another day.

“BUT NO!” I hear the voices that I suspect you hear as well, even as you read these words. “IT MATTERS WHAT WE EAT! DONUTS ARE NOT ASPARAGUS! BACON IS NOT LOW-FAT YOGURT!”

We can’t even state the most obvious fact about fueling our bodies without triggering the immediate response of our internalized social cues.

And of course, no one (least of all me) is suggesting that donuts = asparagus. It does matter what we eat. Some fuel is more useful, a more efficient way to help us survive not just today, but long-term. If, say, a wolf spends a season eating prey that has been infected with some sort of, I don’t know, vitamin-A destroying virus, it will not get what it needs from its fuel, and this will affect its health (assuming wolves need vitamin A). Same for us. If we don’t get enough of what we need, or too much of what we don’t, it will affect our health. The quality of the food we consume matters.

What I am suggesting is that we don’t have a truly functional, or even honest, way of sorting that out. We speak in broad generalizations, using language that suggests that “average” is a consistently useful concept ( “Do you know what ‘average’ means?” a professor once asked us back at Tel Aviv University. “Average means that you have one foot encased in ice and the other engulfed in flame, but on average, you feel comfortable.”), and pile so many value judgments on top of the whole steaming pile that we come away not knowing how to answer a simple queston: “What is normal eating?”

And so, finally, to my point – this is a post about someone else’s post: What Is Normal Eating? Indeed, it is a post about someone else’s post about other people’s posts. But stick with me!

Over at PsychCentral, author Margarita Tartakovsky, MS says this:

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.

She goes on to quote Ellyn Satter, an author, dietician and clinical social worker who wrote the following very wise thing:

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.

Tartakovsky also quotes Karly Pitman (who is, apparently an “MT,” but I can’t figure out what that is! But as she, too, is wise, I’m cool with it), who writes, among many other smart things:

Who started the lie, anyway, that women shouldn’t have an appetite?… I have no qualms about getting a second helping, rather than undereating to be socially acceptable…. But eating normally is more than freeing yourself from food: it’s adding trust, an inner knowing that you’ll care for your body excellently in your food choices. It’s trusting that if you give yourself permission to have dessert, you’ll still eat vegetables. (Note: I paraphased that first bit a little above, because I wanted the men to keep reading. Sorry. Social conditioning, and all).

“Rather than undereating to be socially acceptable…. Eating normally is… adding trust, an inner knowing that you’ll care for your body.” These lines really struck me, because so much of how we deal with our bodies and food has far less to do with the self, or Truth, than with what others will think of us when they hear — and see — us.

We hear a lot about the “obesity epidemic,” even though the notion of an epidemic has been debunked by the very people still touting it (the CDC), among others. We have observed the continuing reification of the Body Mass Index, in spite of the fact the NIH panel that established BMI standards is significantly linked to the weight-lose industry, including pharmaceutical companies that specialize in weight loss drugs — and in spite of the fact that BMI flies in the face of common sense, being as how it “is interpreted using standard weight status categories that are the same for all ages and for both men and women” and takes neither ethnicity, nor muscle mass, nor bone density into consideration. (This woman, for instance, is BMI-overweight. As is this man). And as a society, we appear to have a genuine, visceral sense of outrage toward those who tip the scales a bit more than someone, somewhere said they should.

And thus, what should be a simple descriptor, “normal,” about an activity crucial to our survival, “eating,” becomes so much meaningless noise, lost in a roar of condemnation and shaming — when really, bottom line, it’s just food.

I’ll be honest: I don’t think we’ll figure this out in my lifetime. But I am hoping to provide my children — and most especially my daughter — with the mental and verbal tools to at least hack through the underbrush themselves, and possibly come out on the other side for their own kids. And to eat normally, myself.


Credit where it’s due: I first found the Tartakovsky post at Jezebel, last week. (What? I still read the posts now and then!)

Also: Satter asks the the following be included when the above passage is quoted: “Copyright © 2009 by Ellyn Satter. Published at For more eating competently (and for research backing up this advice), see Ellyn Satter’s Secrets of Feeding a Healthy Family: How to Eat, How to Raise Good Eaters, How to Cook, Kelcy Press, 2008. Also see to purchase books and to review other resources.”

UPDATE: This probably should have been tagged on to the end of my post about ruining my children’s summer, but it hadn’t been published yet, so here we have it, now! A Newsweek slide-show called “Fat on Film: What pop culture tells us about being obese in America.”


  1. Rachel Goldfarb

     /  September 3, 2009

    I really love the idea of eating normally that you’ve quoted from Satter. I’ve never been on a diet. I’ve never restricted what foods I eat (beyond kashrut, of course). I don’t really worry about eating particularly foods. I eat because I’m hungry, because it tastes good, because I want it. As a child, this was because I ate what my mother had in the house. As I got older, my body was generally good enough for me, and I didn’t want to have to stick to some ridiculous meal plan.

    Today, my eating habits have become part of my feminism- I hate how many women feel pressured to diet and to eat the ‘right’ food and to feel guilt over their food choices and I refuse to be a part of that. So if you’ll excuse me, I saw this picture last week on foodgawker of an avocado and goat cheese open face sandwich, and I’m hungry and have an avocado and some chevre calling my name.

  2. No bacon is not low-fat yogurt, and for that I shall be eternally grateful!

    If any measurement is to be used to determine some vague notion of health then the only one I know of that fits your criteria somewhat is hip-to-waist ratio. For men it should be .9 and for women it should be .7 and that is without regard to weight. You can of course always find the exception to this particular measurement but in most cases it seems to be a way determine if one is headed in the right direction or not.

    I do agree that our relationship with food. We have two daughters (who just started 2nd grade yesterday!) and our message to them has been to eat healthy food. We rarely open any packaging when preparing a meal. No cans, no boxes, etc. As much as possible we have begun incorporating them into shopping for and preparing meals. We eat what in most households would be considered small amounts of beef, pork, chicken, etc… We eat lots of whole grains and vegetables with every meals and encourage our girls to eat until they are full.

    In our house we wish to live well and seem to do so for the most part. Fresh foods, fresh air and plenty of exercise works well of us. Simplicity makes its own rewards.

  3. dave in texas

     /  September 3, 2009

    I found your blog through Ta-Nehisi Coates’ blog over at The Atlantic. I really appreciate your takes on what goes on over there. Anyway, this post brought to mind a really simple, almost koan-like phrase I recently read somewhere.

    Eat food, mostly plants, not too much.

    I used to never worry about my weight, but now that I’m in my 50s, with slowing metabolism and in a sedentary job, I find myself practically obsessing about it. I never thought I’d see the day I was north of 180 pounds, but here I am at 182 at my last weighing-in. It’s a bizarre thing, starting to worry about something I never before gave a second thought to. I’ve always eaten reasonably healthy foods, and still do; I guess what I reallly need is some motivation to replace the physical activity I lost when I got my present job. Oh, well.

    Eat food, mostly plants, not too much.

  4. Well, in some ways you are certainly correct, Emily (nice name, btw). In other ways I would say not correct. Here are a few short paragraphs from an AP news item from a few years ago…

    “Last year, patient care director Colleen Becker (Barnes Jewish Med Ctr, St. Louis)decided to check the numbers. She looked at a daily hospital census — about one-third of the 900 patients weighed 350 pounds or more.

    Startled, Becker checked another date, then another. The numbers were consistent. On some days, half the patients were obese. Some weighed 500 pounds or more.

    “We ran the data again to make sure we weren’t hallucinating,” Becker said. “We weren’t. So we had to somehow figure out the appropriate supplies, equipment, training and care for the patients we’re dealing with.”

    A startling change from 20 or 30 years ago. In 1941, the average weight of the offensive linemen of the Chicago Bears was approximately 235 pounds (they won the NFL title). Today, most high school teams are heavier; sometimes MUCH heavier. Something dramatic has happened to “Americans and food” and it is not all good.