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Competent Eating: What does it mean?

I’m a huge fan of Ellyn Satter, who is a Registered Dietitian and therapist with many years of experience in helping clients improve their relationship with food. Satter has developed the Satter Eating Competence Model (ecSatter), which I use as a framework for working with clients. Much of what Ellyn has written about ecSatter is available on her website, Here’s a quote from Satter’s writing that briefly describes what Eating Competence is all about:

“ecSatter, encourages you to feel positive about your eating, to be reliable about feeding yourself, to eat food you enjoy, to eat enough to feel satisfied, and to let your body weigh what it will in accordance with your lifestyle and genetic endowment. Rather than expecting you to manage your eating by the rules, ecSatter encourages you to base your eating on your body’s natural processes: hunger and the drive to survive, appetite and the need for pleasure, the social reward of sharing food and the tendency to maintain preferred and stable body weight.”

If you go to Satter Institute website, you'll see tabs at the top of the home page. There's a tab called “How to Eat.” Click on that tab, and you'll find that “Adult’s Eating and Weight” is the first category listed, and “Eating Competence” is listed as the first topic in that category. All of the topics listed under that category are interesting and easy to read quickly, but to learn more about what “Eating Competence” means, click on that topic and go from there. There are links within that reading that lead you to issues of Family Meals Focus that elaborate more on the ecSatter concepts. Family Meals Focus #21 summarizes the components of competent eating, which are context, attitude, food acceptance, and internal regulation.

Here are some quotes about each of the four components of competent eating:

From FMF#22 about attitude: “Competent eaters…enjoy food and eating and they are comfortable with their enjoyment. They feel it is ok to eat food they like in amounts they find satisfying.”

From FMF#23 about food acceptance: “Being able to be calm and relaxed in the presence of unfamiliar food: to experiment with it; to pick and choose from what’s available, and to say yes, please, and no, thank you.”

About the relationship between appetite and satisfaction: “Being an epicure, valuing and experiencing sensual pleasure, is a critical factor in becoming satisfied.” “As one of my patients put it, ‘I am ready to stop when my mouth is finished as well as my stomach.’ ”

From FMF#24 about internal regulation: “Your body knows how much you need to eat. Essential to eating’s rich reward is having enough to eat. Being hungry and eager to eat can feel positive and exciting on the one hand or negative and distressing on the other. The difference lies in whether or not you are confident that your hunger and appetite will be satisfied, that you can look forward to getting enough of the food that you find rewarding.” “After people learn to trust and honor their true and legitimate needs, they find that rather than periodically cutting loose and eating a great deal of high-calorie food, they eat moderately and consistently of all food, all the time, and find it genuinely satisfying.”

Ok, I want to interject my own comment here. When you see the words “true and legitimate needs,” you may be thinking about vegetables and high fiber cereals. That is NOT what this statement is about. The statement is about recognizing that you need to satisfy your hunger, and not restrict your eating to the point that you stop before your body tells you that your hunger is sated. This requires paying close attention to how you are feeling as you eat, of course. That leads into the final component, which is context management.

From FMF#25: “To reap the rewards of trustworthy, satisfying, internally regulated eating, you must provide yourself with regular, reliable, rewarding meals as well as sit-down snacks if you need them. You will do a good job with eating as much as you need of a variety of food if you reliably feed yourself, go to some trouble to make food taste good, and take the time to tune in and enjoy your food.”

So context management is about planning ahead to some extent for when you will eat and what you will eat. That doesn’t mean you can’t get takeout sometimes, it just means it should be fit into an overall plan of structured meals, based on some forethought.

There is also a wealth of information on the Satter Institute website about raising children to be competent eaters. If you’re raising a family, your own attitudes toward eating (and your body) have a significant impact on your children. That makes it even more important to deal with your own eating and body image issues. Satter’s book entitled Secrets of Feeding a Healthy Family is a pretty comprehensive guide, but often it helps to work with a nutrition professional, such as myself, who uses the ecSatter model.

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