Becoming a Competent Eater

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Unconditional permission to eat this? Hell yeah.

Greetings lovelies! I figured it was high time I wrote about this particular topic because I’ve been seeing lots of comments here and on Facebook about people having difficulty becoming internally regulated eaters.

Intuitive Eating is fantastic and it was one of the books I read early on after quitting dieting for good. It’s one way to learn to eat normally – meaning, listening to your gut (literally) when it comes to knowing when to eat and when to stop, feeling relaxed around food, and feeling confident that you are eating exactly what is right for your body. Notice I didn’t say anything about it being a way to lose weight or a way to learn how to eat less. I just want to throw that out there – continually – so nobody is confused about what this eating normally business is all about. It is NOT about weight loss. Ever.

Anyway, as I said, intuitive eating is one of the ways to learn to eat normally – but it isn’t the only way. In my diet-ditching literary travels, I came across other philosophies, ideas, and models of normal eating. I’ll link to those at the bottom of this post, but for now I’m going to talk about my absolute favorite model, Ellyn Satter’s Eating Competence. I’ve been doing some self-study on this model and re-reading some of her books, and I am reminded that this was the model that really clicked for me. If you’ve been struggling for a while with intuitive eating, I suggest looking at this or some other models for normal eating inspiration. For now, I’ll just talk about Eating Competence.

What is the difference between Intuitive Eating (IE) and Eating Competence (EC)? The essential difference, to me, is that IE focuses on eating-on-demand; that is, figuring out when you are hungry, eating exactly then, stopping when you are satisfied, and then starting the cycle all over when you are hungry again, disregarding structured meal times in favor of listening to your internal regulation cues (there’s a bit more to it than just that, but for short form purposes, that’s the crux of it. Read the book for the full deal.).  EC also trains you to eat according to internal regulation cues, but relies on the discipline of providing yourself (and your family) rewarding meals at regular times, and the permission to eat as much as you like at each meal. Here is a more detailed explanation of the differences as written by Ellyn Satter herself. Both reject diet mentality and weight manipulation and embrace body diversity, both use internal signals of hunger and fullness to regulate eating, but one relies on meal-time structure and the other rejects it. I see both as useful models, and it just depends on what you prefer.

Personally, I love the feeling of knowing I have rewarding meals planned for myself – that feels like safety and comfort. It can be stressful to wait till I’m hungry to try to figure out what I’m hungry for AND how to get it. This works well if I’m out shopping and there’s a food court, but not at home where I have limited pantry space, or at work where I need to bring my lunch. So while demand feeding might work well for some, it just doesn’t work for me, especially if I want to have family meals every night (and I do). If you have kids, EC will be especially useful because you can all eat at the same time, and your kids will become competent eaters too.

So how does this meal structure thing work? There is definitely planning involved – but since we’re not planning to starve ourselves or trick our hunger, I view this as self-care, not external rule-following. You will provide yourself three meals (a must) and three sit-down snacks (if you need them) a day. Your appetite will eventually find the rhythm of structured meals once you are honoring it regularly. The meals must be rewarding – you don’t want to spend a lot of time coming up with meals you don’t want to eat. It’s a good idea to include foods from all of the food groups at the meals – a worthwhile guideline that ensures satiety. I suggest checking  Secrets of Feeding a Healthy Family out of the library for the full deets – it’s not that long and it’s easy to read. I’ll also continue to write about Eating Competence and my suggestions of how to get there.

You will still spend time getting familiar with your internal hunger and fullness cues. There are steps outlined in Secrets that will get you there. I love step-by-step instructions for anything, so this book wins my heart not just for the structure component, but also some concrete how-to.

I can’t emphasize enough that this model hinges on unconditional permission to eat – whatever and as much as you like. Beware of impostors that try to take away that permission, with rules like “eat a vegetable before the rest of your meal,” “fill up on water so you’ll eat less” or “sit and chew your food slowly.” No “tricks,” just permission. If you find yourself making rules about how much to eat that don’t involve how much you actually want to eat, always try to come back to this statement: “I can eat as much as I want.” You don’t need to be perfect, just honest with yourself.

By the way, many dietitians know of Ellyn Satter’s pioneering work pediatric nutrition (the Division of Responsibility in feeding) so if you need professional help with this, be sure to ask your potential dietitian if she’s familiar with this work.

If you’re struggling with internally regulated eating, just know you have some options. There isn’t just one way to do this thang. I’ll never tell you one option is better than the other because it comes down to personal preference. Do some investigation and experimentation, see what works for you, and go for it. You’ll eventually hit meal-time nirvana and never look back.

Resources for learning to eat normally that I’ve read and recommend:

The Diet Survivor’s Handbook: 60 Lessons in Eating, Acceptance and Self-Care by Judith Matz and Ellen Frankel

Overcoming Overeating by Jane R. Hirschmann and Carol H. Munter

Intuitive Eating by Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch

Eat What You Love, Love What You Eat: A Mindful Eating Program to Break Your Eat-Repent-Repeat Cycle by Michelle May (there are variations on this book for diabetes and binge eating as well)

Ellyn Satter’s website is chock-full of good information, much of it from her books, if you want to learn more.

 

Dietitians Unplugged plug!

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Why Is Eating Normally So Hard?

cat memeWhen I decided to stop dieting, it felt like the biggest relief ever. I was so tired of trying to trick my body into thinking it didn’t need food, ignoring gnawing hunger pangs, coming up with ideas for meals that tasted great but had next to no calories in it, counting “points,” and acting like the worst thing that could happen to me would be to get fat again (it wasn’t), that the final decision – made after several months of a nutrition class taught by Linda Bacon in which I was introduced to HAES® – felt easy. But the process of learning to eat normally? Not always so easy.

Eating without restriction at first felt scary. This was before I’d even heard of intuitive eating or eating competence,  and I just thought eating normally would happen naturally. I wasn’t prepared for the lingering sense of manufactured food insecurity that drove me to eat quickly and voraciously of portions that were bigger than I was hungry for. I felt way out of control at times.

So I totally get that people can have a hard time with learning to eat normally after dieting. The posts I see in the various groups I belong to on Facebook tell of people struggling with “getting it right” or listening to their bodies with any degree of accuracy. I hear a lot of frustration. Years of dieting can totally fuck with your head and your stomach, and can make this whole process a lot harder.

There are two things that can make this process even harder: Perfectionism and Judgment.

Let’s start with Perfectionism. When I hear people talk about learning to eat more intuitively, so many are beating themselves up for “slipping up” and eating too much, or not “getting it right.” As former dieters, we may have felt our “success” depended so much on being perfect, getting the diet right, and never falling off the proverbial wagon. Isn’t that why everyone blames people for diet failure? They didn’t stick to the diet, they weren’t perfect enough, and therefore they didn’t achieve the results. Even though we know this isn’t a personal failure – that the state of dieting is a completely unnatural one, that nearly everyone fails at weight loss over the long term, and that it has nothing to do with willpower – we often persist in this idea that if we had just done it perfectly enough, it would have worked out differently. So even when we give up dieting, I think we suffer from residual perfectionism. Normal eating is just a new thing to perfect. But really, it isn’t. I Ellyn Satter’s definition of what normal eating looks like:

 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. In short, normal eating is flexible. It varies in response to your hunger, your schedule, your proximity to food and your feelings.

Notice she didn’t say anything about normal eating requiring perfection? There is room here for a lot of mistake-making. So make those mistakes and learn from all of them!

That leaves Judgment. It begins with wishful thinking. It’s like somehow even though dieting didn’t work to make us thin, we hope normal eating might. We are dismayed that when we start to listen to our bodies, they actually start to gain weight (for some, at least). I went through this myself. I felt betrayed that normal eating meant I might gain weight –that wasn’t right, was it?!? Intellectually, I knew that I had been suppressing my weight with dieting, and that weight gain might be natural – but emotionally I felt destroyed. Surely if I just learned to eat “normally,” I would have a “normal” sized body? (Those were early days and my ideas about what constituted a normal body were still dictated by crappy, oppressive cultural ideals.)

So we look at our bodies that seem out of control and decide that it probably has something to do with our new way of eating, which also feels completely out of control. We start to apply the brakes to our eating here and there. We try to eat a bit less, or eat more healthful foods than we want, or we go the other way and binge because we’re so stressed out or starving again. All of this behavior stems from the judgment we’re putting on our bodies and what we think they should or shouldn’t be doing. Next thing you know, eating normally doesn’t feel good at all, and it’s now not any easier than dieting was. Thanks judgment, you judgey asshole!

Despite being freaked the hell out, I decided to roll with the wisdom of my body, if only for one simple, driving reason: I could NOT go back to dieting. The mere thought of more restriction made me want to cry. And I wanted to be authentically me, not someone who lived in fear of what my body actually was when I satisfied my hunger in a totally normal way.

That decision was the key to me finally clicking with normal eating. I decided to not worry about nutrition (a challenge when you’re in the middle of a dietetics program), eat foods I felt like eating as much as possible, experiment when I wanted, and just tune into what my gut was telling me without stressing about whether I got it right or not. That last part was key – it didn’t matter if I wasn’t getting it right. And then one day, after a lot of reading* on the subject and experimentation, it felt like I was getting it right more often than I was wasn’t. And yeah, I still make lots of mistakes. Sometimes I eat too much, sometimes not enough. Whatever. I’ll get it right the next day. Or the day after that. I trust my body to make up for the mistakes.

If you’re in the middle of this process, have a stern talk with Judgment and Perfectionism. Thank them for whatever they’ve given you, and then kiss them goodbye. They don’t have a place in your diet-free life anymore.

*My favorite non-diet how-to-eat resources are:
Intuitive Eating by Tribole and Resch
Any book by Ellyn Satter but especially this one and this one
The Diet Survivor’s Handbook by Matz and Frankel
Overcoming Overeating by Hirschmann and Munter

Dietitians Unplugged podcast – episode 6 available now!

Episode 6 is called “Clean Eating or Toxic Ideas?” and we had so much fun talking about this subject.

Listen on Libsyn or iTunes. Give us a review on iTunes if you like us — this helps to spread the non-diet love to more people. Check out our Facebook page for our latest episode and news and more weight neutral, HAES® friendly podcasts!

Dietitians Unplugged Podcast – Episode 6: Clean Eating or Toxic Ideas?

Cover2Check out episode 6 of the Dietitians Unplugged podcast in which Aaron and I discuss the “clean eating” trend. Is this just another way to eat, a diet, or a new religion? And what are the implications for the kids raised in this dichotomous way of thinking about food?

Here is the article that inspired this blog post. Warning: it includes fat-phobic comments and diet talk.

Other links referenced:
Ellyn Satter Institute
The Blessing Of A Skinned Knee: Using Jewish Teachings to Raise Self-Reliant Children, by Wendy Mogel, PhD

 

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