What's It like to Be a 'Normal' Eater?

Mixed race woman choosing vegetables or cupcake
Mixed race woman choosing vegetables or cupcake

I've been reading Caitlin Boyle's blog, Healthy Tipping Point, for years and years now, and am always impressed by her dedication to health, fitness, and family, but also by how real and down to earth she is. Caitlin is the author of a several books, including Operation Beautiful. She's also a mom, a pet owner, and a triathlete, to boot!

Recently, she participated in a 30 day eating challenge, The Vegetarian Whole 30. This surprised me, because she's not the dieting type, and annoyed me slightly, because I think diets, in general, are terrible, terrible things. However, when I read her recap about it, I knew I had to reach out to her and see if she'd chat with me, because she is a fabulous example of someone who is totally and utterly "normal" around food, and lots of women need to hear what she has to say.

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Jen Picicci (JP): I normally advise my clients to stay far, far away from 30 day food challenges because they can set you up for a cycle of deprivation and the food crazies, but you recently completed the Vegetarian Whole 30 and seemed to do it from a totally sane and well-adjusted place. Have you always been this sane around food? Why or why not, and when was it different?

Caitlin Boyle (CB): Hah -- I love this question. I do feel like I come at food from a good place now, even though I didn't always. In my teens and early twenties, I think I was like a lot of American women. I had bought into the messages that you get from fitness/women's magazines and thought the best way to eat was as little as possible (counting calories of course) and that it was a good idea to eat fake foods that drove down calorie counts. I'm talking Light N Fit yogurt and whatnot.

As I got older and learned more about health, I realized several things: 1) Food is either medicine or poison to your body -- I needed to eat foods that made me feel good (not just thin) and I needed to try to largely stay away from all those additives and weird ingredients. 2) I learned that when you focused on eating real food and getting in touch with your natural hunger cues/the way that food made you feel, you didn't need to count calories or grams of carbs or whatever. Your body is pretty smart and knows what to do. So that's kind of how I approached Vegetarian Whole 30 -- I like the mission of Whole 30 and can get behind the food recommendations, but I also need to eat in a way that works for my mental health and life.

JP: When you were on the Whole 30, you "messed up" and ate something that you weren't allowed (on the plan). Instead of throwing in the towel or subsisting on donuts for the next two weeks, you enjoyed the "cheat" and went right on with the healthy eating the next day. How do you stay away from the "all-or-nothing" mentality when it comes to food and eating?

CB: I've just realized that there isn't really a point to being all-or-nothing. Every meal is a chance to make healthy choices. And when you really focus on how much better you feel physically by making healthy choices, I think it's a positive and self-reinforcing cycle. Also, as I get older, I realize how that all-or-nothing mentality has very little basis in reality. There almost nothing in life that benefits from being all-or-nothing. Life is a journey with ups and downs, and that's okay. You will never get anywhere if you throw in the towel because of one off day.

JP: You've continued to eat well (less sugar, more veggies, etc.) since you ended the challenge. How have you balanced out the types of foods you eat (veggies vs. chocolate, for instance) so that you make healthy choices but never feel deprived?

CB: Honestly, I think a huge component of it was that I was straight-up ADDICTED to sugar. So this has not been so much of a mental shift as it is a chemical shift in my brain. When you take 30 days to eliminate added sugar completely and really become more aware of how often that junk is in almost every processed food, you realize that we, as a country, are overdosing on sugar. It's been really easy to replace my sugar with healthier foods because 1) I kicked the habit and 2) going off sugar reinforced how bad it makes me feel to eat lots of it on the regular.

Jen's Note: Before you make any drastic changes to your diet, know that you must be coming to it from a place of peace, calm, and love in order for it to stick/feel good. Note that all of the changes Caitlin made were based on wanting to feel better and were in no way related to weight loss. If you completely remove something like sugar from your diet, it's best to do it once you've already escaped the diet-binge cycle, or you're likely to end right back up in the same place (or a worse one).

JP: You seem to have the whole "eating for fuel and fun and not obsessing about it" thing completely down. Any tips for someone who wants to feel the same way?

CB: You have to force certain habits at first, but then they become a lifestyle. So clean out your fridge of the junkier foods and save those items for meals out. Work on one small change at a time -- don't overwhelm yourself. And really try to get in touch with the way eating makes your body feel. I sound like a broken record, but I do think it's easier to make healthier choices when you acknowledge how you sleep better, have better memory, recover from workouts, etc.

JP: I know in the past you struggled with fat talk/negative self-talk, can you tell me what has been the most helpful in getting away from that?

CB: Take the time to educate yourself on some feminist issues, such as the way women and men are presented in the media. I really recommended the YouTube video "Killing Us Softly." When you understand the larger social forces at play here, it's empowering to take the control back and say, "I will not let a giant corporation define my sense of self-worth." Also -- therapy. So much of our body image issues go back to basic mental health. I cannot recommend self-exploration in therapy enough.

And there you have it, folks, food from a woman who is completely, totally, "normal" around food. It's not an overnight thing, but you can get there, too. If you want help getting started on your journey, get my free guide The One Thing You Must Do to Stop Feeling Crazy Around Food.