Monday, October 19, 2009

Finding normal: eating, exercising, and obsessing USA, LLC

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Once upon a time, the experts gave us dieting and exercise tips: Size-up (and down) your servings; make a daily workout calendar. We were told to simply follow the rules, and then skip merrily down the road to health.

But somewhere along the path toward wellness, we've gotten lost in a waist-land of extremes.

Carrie, 33, has to eat exactly 24 Shredded Mini-Wheats at breakfast. Never more, never less. This behavior stems from the rigid portion control she learned as a teenager. Dana, 43, must run every morning, whether in rain, sleet or snow, or if she's sick, hurt or overtired. Her obsession is a leftover from her adolescent bulimia nervosa. To Dana, exercise has become a replacement for vomiting. She sees both as a means to "get rid of" excess calories.

At first glance, both women appear to have issues. But how serious? By definition, neither today has an eating disorder. Where on the disordered eating/exercise spectrum does each fall? And what is "normal," anyway?

What's Normal?

Normal is the middle of the bell curve. At each end are eating disorders: anorexia at the starvation side, and binge eating disorder at the overindulgence tail. Bulimia, with its bingeing and purging, simply goes back and forth between each extreme. If you are wondering where on the curve you sit or if your eating and exercise is "normal," here's a quick quiz to help you decide:

Is My Eating Normal?

Do you:

1. Spend more time thinking about food than actually eating it?

2. Eat beyond the point of tasting?

3. Use eating and/or exercise to manage daily stress?

4. Exercise even if ill, injured, or fatigued?

5. Judge whether you are "bad" or "good" based on your food choices of the day? For example, "I was so "bad" today. I ate two chocolate brownies."

6. Let the scale determine whether you are deserving of friendships, a satisfying job, or a dish of Ben and Jerry's Chunky Monkey?

While this quiz is by no means a diagnostic measure of eating disorders, it can shed light on your unconscious or secreted food and body obsessions. If you answered, "yes" to three or more of the previous questions, then you're moving toward the extremes of disordered eating. You might want to stop, reflect, and turn yourself back toward the center.

Some Food For Thought:

To help you find your way back toward normal, here are some reflections on what "normal" eating and exercise means. Normal is not perfect. Normal is:

[check] Sitting down to a meal and finishing when you are full.

[check] Eating because you are hungry, but occasionally giving yourself permission to eat because you are happy, sad, bored or the food just tastes that good.

[check] Eating three meals a day and two snacks, but sometimes going for four or five small ones, or a day of grazing continually.

[check] Eating your cake and then leaving one last piece in a Tupperware in the fridge--for the next day. Because you can have it tomorrow.

[check] Trading a workout, without guilt, for a social event, because that day you realize you need friends. Not the perfect body.

[check] Overeating at the holidays, because you trust your body cues and rhythms to compensate later.

[check] Deciding that this year you don't want to make a New Year's resolution that involves your body.

[check] Giving some thought to food and/or exercise, but not all your mental energy.

[check] Seeing food and exercise as allies in health, not means of self-punishment or reward.

Finding Normal for You

Sound idealistic? It isn't. In fact, you were once there. As an infant, you understood normal eating and activity; that's because you hadn't yet read the tips about dieting or felt the pressure to be thinner.

Normal eating is a learned set of behaviors and choices. They are based mainly on internal cues of hunger and fullness. Babies act out of those cues, but then grow up, and pick up their parents' habits. Next, it's cultural pressure to be skinny. Then comes the "Gateway to a New You:" a fad diet and/or exercise plan. That means following someone else's recommendation to achieve a different body shape than the one you have today.

The moment the plan begins, the connection between body cues and eating gets broken. You break every diet feeling horrible, even though the diet was unrealistic and unable to sustain your long term caloric needs.

On the other hand, "normal eating is a relationship between our bodies and our plates," says Leann Simmons, a nutritionist in Arlington, MA and the creator of

For some, that relationship is love-hate. For others, it's completely antagonistic. But no matter what the relationship is today, tomorrow it can be different. Seeing eating and exercise as a relationship with the body can help put you back on the path toward "normal."

Here are six steps to help you on your journey:

1. Stop extreme dieting.

By dieting, you have disconnected your mind from your sensations of fullness and hunger. To reconnect, you have to re-experience how those sensations feel. Without a diet, you may fear that you will eat everything in the house. Trust yourself. Your body will eventually discover what is normal for you, if you give it a chance.

2. Sense the sensations.

Hunger is not a good thing to be overridden or distracted from. It is a cue that your body needs energy. Fullness means its time to stop. Your goal is to eat to these cues, and let go of external ones such as the clock, the latest diet fad, or cultural pressure to be thinner.

3. Keep a hunger journal.

To further help you increase your awareness of your body, log what you eat each day. If that makes you feel too neurotic, then write down how your body feels, your moods, and behaviors. Don't judge. Just record. If this is too much, set a watch or cell phone alarm at periodic intervals to check in with you. You may be surprised at what you find.

4. Take note of external stresses.

The number one reason why people eat mindlessly or diet obsessively is stress. Food is instant gratification, and often used as a pacifier for emotional duress. So too does exercise soothe us with an outpouring of endorphins and other brain opiates. But food or intense workout regimes are not long-term solutions. Overeating and overexercising create other long-term problems, so plan in advance. Think about your most stressful times of the day, i.e. dinnertime, the kids screaming, and you trying to feed the family. Plan for these moments with a 10-minute "time-in," in which you regroup and refocus on your body signals.

5. Don't "should" on yourself.

You go to a party and say, I "should" eat the raw veggies not the mushroom

pastry puffs. With the first utterance of the word "should," you're pressing your guilt button. That means you're likely to eat the puffs and beat yourself up the next day, or forego them and tell yourself you were "a good girl." Either way, you've made food into a morality issue. Here's another way to look at it: If you hear yourself saying, "I was 'bad' today," then stop and ask youself: Did you shoot someone? Did you rob a bank? Forget "bad" and "good." Food is fuel for the body to maintain health. Period.

6. Not all hungers need food.

There are many kinds of hunger, i.e. hunger for friendship, excitement, and success. All can feel like the same craving, especially to a person who has learned to use food to satisfy all. Your goal now is to learn how to discriminate. Identify the craving for what it is, then figure out how to feed it differently and appropriately.

7. Take care of you:

Finding "normal" takes self-love, not self-deprivation or guilt as motivators. When you put you and your real needs first, the rest will fall into place.

These steps are just the beginning. The rest will unfold over time. And it takes time. All good relationships take time and nurturing. If you suspect that your food/body issues are serious, then seek help. Otherwise, let go of dieting for today. Don't be afraid of your body and its urges. They will be your best guide toward "normal".

Trisha Gura is the author of "Lying in Weight: the Hidden Epidemic of Eating Disorders in Adult Women" (Harper Collins, May 2007). Visit her online at Her website offers resources for further help on this issue.

Note: This article is for information purposes only and is not intended to diagnose or treat.

Source Citation:Gura, Trisha. "Finding normal: eating, exercising, and obsessing." Going Bonkers Magazine 2.1 (Wntr 2008): 38(2). General Reference Center Gold. Gale. Alachua County Library District. 19 Oct. 2009

Gale Document Number:A172776783

Disclaimer:This information is not a tool for self-diagnosis or a substitute for professional care.

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