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!

Episode 8 – The Beach Body Episode is available now! Listen on iTunes and Libsyn. Like our Facebook page to get all the latest news on our podcast and other non-diet podcasts. Our “challenge” to listeners continues to the end of May – don’t miss out on this fabulous chance to embarrass your hosts!

Dietitians Unplugged Podcast – Episode 2: The Science of Weight Loss

Cover2Aaron Flores, RDN and I are back with Episode 2 of Dietitians Unplugged Podcast, in which we talk about why dieting and weight loss don’t work long-term, and the science that backs it up, courtesy of the excellent book Secrets From the Eating Lab: The Science of Weight Loss, the Myth of Willpower, and Why You Should Never Diet Again by Traci Mann, PhD.

Like it? Subscribe here.

Download on Libsyn or on iTunes. Don’t forget to give us a rating on iTunes if you liked it!

 

 

Diving Deep Into Intuitive Eating

EATI have been reading Fiona Willer’s excellent book, The Non-Diet Approach Guidebook for Dietitians, which provides a structured approach for dietitians teaching normalized eating (aka attuned eating aka intuitive eating aka mindful eating). I can’t recommend it enough for dietitians who want to work from a Health At Every Size® perspective with their clients. I’m really enjoying the material and it made me think about how I teach this approach.

My shorthand for intuitive eating has always been, “Eat when you are hungry, stop when you are full.” But reading Willer’s book alerted me to something very important: there is a difference between full and satisfied. Satisfied is the absence of hunger that we need to pay attention to in our eating. The absence of hunger is actually the biological signal to stop eating – not feeling “full.” The difference may seem small, but it is in fact profound. It can be the difference between eating more than we need and eating just enough. Stopping when we are no longer hungry and waiting 10-15 minutes will take us to that comfortably full feeling, because it takes at least that long for our body to recognize fullness.

If I hadn’t given this a lot of thought before, I had to ask myself: Am I truly an intuitive eater?

When I first quit dieting, I decided to give myself a break and just eat. I hadn’t heard of intuitive eating yet, only HAES®, and was doing my best to figure out how to eat normally for the first time in my life. For the most part I didn’t binge – that was something I did when I was restricting – but I didn’t have a clue of how I wanted to feel before, during and after I ate a meal. I did become more of an intuitive eater as I learned more about it, but it’s a process that takes time and practice, especially after so many years of restrictive, regimented eating. Lately my efforts at eating well have concentrated around trying to find ways to get more vegetables into my day, but now I’d like to back up a bit and make sure my IE skills are where I want them to be.

So, because I will never ask my clients to do something I could not or would not do, last week I vowed to really start paying attention to my body’s signals around eating.

Hunger is not a problem for me – I recognize hunger like it was an old pal (although I as a dieter I considered it more of a frenemy). I generally do try to eat when I’m hungry but there are times when this is harder to do – like at work. I’m sometimes a poor planner around snacks, so I occasionally (all right, several times a week) find myself starving and without food at hand. Allowing my hunger to go on for so long – either because I am too busy or too lazy to get food – probably leads me to eat more than I need when lunch time rolls around. Thus, task number 1: make sure I have sufficient snacks throughout the day and access to a lunch I want in order to properly honor my hunger.

I realized last week that I have another hungry-habit that is a holdover from my dieting days. Never a morning exerciser, I like to work out (either at the gym, or by going for a walk) right after work and before dinner. But that means we sometimes don’t eat until almost 8 pm, some nights even later. No good – my significant other (S.O.) and I are both starving and miserable by then and a late dinner means trouble for my acid reflux problem. No to mention we tear into our meal like wild dogs at that late hour, sometimes holding our bellies in distress and dismay at how we ate more than we needed just because we were so hungry.

Task number 2, then: we’re going to eat dinner when we are hungry, which happens to be right after we get home from work. We don’t want snacks then, we want to make dinner because we still have the energy for it. I’ve avoided this because I didn’t like exercising on a “full” stomach after dinner…but exercising on a “satisfied” stomach should be fine…once I get there.

Which brings me to discovering my stopping point. The truth is, I’m often stressed and rushing when I eat, either at work because I’m busy or at home because I’ve waited too late to eat. I’ve also always been a fast eater, speeding through meals as though I’d had to compete with ten siblings for food growing up (I’m an only child). So I’m not actually sure at what point I am stopping these days. I have noticed lately that I feel fuller than I want to at times, and I’d like to remedy that.

(Incidentally, I asked my S.O., who is a very well-self-regulated eater, “Do you stop eating when you’re full, or when you’re no longer hungry?” He honestly didn’t know. He sometimes professes to be a member of the clean-plate-club, but nearly 10 years of watching him eat has allowed me the secret knowledge that he is not – quite often he’ll leave behind food that he is no longer interested in, even if it’s just a few bites. Now there’s an intuitive eater. Except when it comes to pizza, his personal kryptonite, and then all bets are off. Hey, we’ve all got something.)

Over the years I’ve participated in mindful eating exercises in which one bite of food is experienced with all the senses. The Non-Diet Approach… also has a script for this kind of exercise. As you eat slowly and with attention, your body and mind have time to recognize that magic moment when the food tastes suddenly less delicious, your hunger is gone, and you know you are done. While you do want to try to enjoy every bite of food, you probably wouldn’t want to eat quite so deliberately every single time; the idea is for you to practice recognizing the signals of hunger/satiety so that eventually, heeding them becomes automatic.

Again, I have to be honest; lately I’ve been eating at my desk, while working. It’s not the best environment for enjoying my food or recognizing body cues, so I’m determined to make eating a priority not only at home, but at work too. Task number 3: I will step away from the computer, I will put down the pen, and I will be one with my meal. I will eat slowly and mindfully and wait for “not hungry.”

I’ve been practicing all of this the last few days: enjoying my food, honoring my hunger and satiety signals, noting the difference between satisfied and full, eating slower. And I’ve been surprised to find that I am eating less than I thought I would at meals and avoiding that unpleasant, too-full feeling I often get when eating out. The whole point, however, is not to trick you into eating less. Eating with the intention to eat less is just another diet. Checking in often with your body means you get to decide if you want to eat more or not based on what your body is feeling, not a misguided sense of how much you think you should eat.

I’ve got my work cut out for me. But after several years of being diet-free, I finally feel ready to really listen to my body and let it be the boss of how I eat.

For more reading on how to normalize your eating, I recommend these books:
Intuitive Eating
Eat What You Love, Love What You Eat
The Diet Survivor’s Handbook
Overcoming Overeating

What’s Your Leanest Livable Weight?

By Orcunkoktuna (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
Fuggedaboudit.
Traci Mann, PhD and professor at the University of Minnesota (and co-author of several of the papers listed on my Scientific Lit page), was featured recently in this LA Times article talking about why we should give up dieting. I’m pretty excited, as you can imagine, anytime a HAES®-minded professional gets some serious traction in the media!

Professor Mann doesn’t mince words right out of the gate:

“You can stop dieting and still be healthy,” Mann said in an interview about her new book, “Secrets From the Eating Lab,” an overview of dieting, willpower and health. And if you’ve lost weight on a diet only to regain it, she said, “it’s really not your fault” but more likely the result of your biology, stress and the allure of “forbidden fruit.”

Preach sister! The article went on to say:

If you want to stay thinner than your body’s natural range allows, Mann said, “you’re going to be dealing with that five or six times every day — meal times, snack times, when you should be exercising. It’s going to have to become a huge main focus of your life. That just seems crazy to me.” (emphasis mine)

Crazy doesn’t even begin to cover it. This was the life I led for a chunk of time, and it left little time for other, happier pursuits. Like blog writing!

Professor Mann advocates for something she calls the “leanest livable weight,” which she describes as “a weight you can maintain while having a normal life. If it’s a weight you cannot maintain, that is not your leanest livable weight.” I don’t love the use of the word “lean” because I think it implies a certain image of thinness, something that many of us will never come close to achieving. But I understand what she is saying and frankly it’s coated in enough honey that even HAES® skeptics might find it palatable. And I’m all for making the non-diet message as accessible to as many people as possible.

As I thought more about this concept of leanest livable weight, it struck me that I was there: my life is livable, normal (well, normal for me) and enjoyable, and my weight is now stable. My leanest livable weight means I get to enjoy two slices of pizza for lunch and some frozen yogurt after to celebrate a friend’s birthday. That’s livable.

Secrets from the Eating Lab: The Science of Weight Loss, the Myth of Willpower, and Why You Should Never Diet Again will apparently include some tips to help improve eating habits. One example was to eat a vegetable before (not with) a meal to cause you to eat less of the meal. So, while I think eating vegetables is great, I’m not necessarily for “tricking” my body into anything. If I eat less than I need, I’ll know it in an hour. If you like your vegetable with your main entrée, eat it that way and just focus on how your stomach feels as you eat. That said, starting your meal out with a salad isn’t the weirdest or most unpleasant thing a person can do. I’m crossing my fingers that her eating tips aren’t restrictive in nature and are just easy things to do to encourage better eating.

I can’t say whether I recommend this book or not because I haven’t read it yet, but it looks promising, and I’ll get behind almost anything that shows the diet industry for what it is: pure profit on a shoddy failure of a product. I just purchased it online so I’ll let you know in a few weeks if it’s worth a look from a HAES® perspective.