Becoming a Competent Eater

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.

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13 thoughts on “Becoming a Competent Eater

  1. melissajanisin May 16, 2016 / 11:39 am

    I needed this! One of my struggles with IE was the “eat as much as you want, and you’ll be able to stop when you’re full because you know you can always have more of it, the next time you are hungry.” That is so not the case, at least for me. We don’t ALWAYS have a dozen cupcakes or freshly baked sugar cookies in our house…we don’t ALWAYS go out for a favorite meal. If I don’t order a large DQ blizzard, I’m certainly not going to go back out for another small one. Instead, I’ll eat 700 Chips Ahoy cookies and not even particularly like them. And the “when you’re hungry” issue is, as you said, a struggle when you have a family. Looking into EC now…thanks again for bringing this information to light for so many of us.

  2. stephieann8 May 16, 2016 / 12:11 pm

    Reblogged this on and commented:
    Excellent read! I needed this 🙂

  3. Anna May 16, 2016 / 1:22 pm

    yes, this is a super helpful article– would love to hear more. I have always done my best to practice EC for my kids (after reading and loving Ellyn Satter’s work on feeding children), which, while allowing kids to decide how much they eat, does also involve parents making judgments that ensure that kids are offered a good variety of foods– ie high and low fat offerings, carbs, protein, fruit and vegetables. More recently, I’ve been reading about intuitive eating and trying to figure out how to heal my own relationship with food. But it is hard to do both, especially as a parent who is responsible for getting everyone fed– I don’t think an IE-only model meshes well with my reality as a working parent.

  4. hannahkenway May 16, 2016 / 2:35 pm

    Thanks – this is really useful. I, like so many of us, have a family to feed, a career and a busy life – intuitive eating is a wonderful concept but there are times when I simply need more structure and EC seems to provide this. In reality I’ve found that a kind of mish mash of both seem to work for me – life is unpredictable and thus there are days when I have the freedom to follow more of an IE model and other days where it’s simply not possible without some stress.

    • GlenysO May 16, 2016 / 2:39 pm

      Agreed! That’s why I also have found both to be useful. I can be a bit more spontaneous at meals sometimes, so it’s good to have both models to work from.

  5. Grab the Lapels May 17, 2016 / 5:30 am

    You know what’s funny is that when I have lots of food options, say at a potluck or Thanksgiving, I don’t eat as much because food looks plenty. When I sit down to a meal where everyone gets the same thing, I panic that there isn’t enough for me. I know this stems from childhood, though. But choosing and having options helps me eat consciously.

    • GlenysO May 23, 2016 / 10:38 am

      That doesn’t surprise me at all! Food insecurity can certainly drive one to overeat. I love Eating Competence because the emphasis is on providing a variety of foods at a meal – though unlikely to rival the variety of a buffet, that’s true!

  6. Little_Em May 19, 2016 / 12:00 am

    Love this. I have no idea how to choose what I ‘fancy’ or what truly ‘normal eating’ looks like. This is helpful. Thank you.

  7. Pooja Grover May 25, 2016 / 2:56 am

    Hi there. Thanks a lot for this article. I have myself been struggling a lot with regulating my diet, mostly getting sucked into overeating while under stress. The links provided are also helpful.

  8. findyourdivatude May 25, 2016 / 11:59 am

    Thank you for the resources! I will check out a couple of these books.

  9. Dawn May 31, 2016 / 1:18 pm

    Love the way you’ve summarized these two important concepts! Secrets of Feeding a Healthy Family is an all-time favorite in the non-diet book genre. And of course love the Intuitive Eating book too!

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