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What Makes a Competent Eater?

By Dana Sturtevant, MS, RD

It’s National Nutrition Month, and while most helping professionals will focus on healthy food, we thought we’d talk about eating competency. Eating competency reminds us that how and why we eat have a big impact on our relationship to food and ourselves. In fact, the way we treat ourselves regarding our eating is key to creating peace with food. Ellyn Satter says, competent eaters are confident, comfortable, and flexible with eating, and are matter-of-fact and reliable about getting enough to eat of enjoyable and nourishing food. If you are like most of our clients, you know all you need to know (if not more than you need to know) about food, nutrition, and healthy eating. And this knowledge may have negatively impacted your relationship with food.

Here are four questions from Ellyn Satter to reflect on your own eating competence:

  • Do you feel good about food and eating – and feel good about feeling good?
  • Do you like a variety of food and enjoy learning to like new food?
  • Do you trust yourself to eat enough for you?
  • Do you take time to eat? To have regular meals (and snacks) and pay attention when you eat?

Unfortunately, the things people do in the name of changing the size, shape or weight of their bodies make them less competent eaters. They often experience a “diet backlash” – increased rigidity regarding good and bad foods, restriction leading to increased binge eating, distrust of self with food, feelings about not “deserving” food, social withdrawal due to not wanting to mess up the dieting plan, and shortened duration of dieting episodes (meaning sticking to a plan gets harder and harder).

Intuitive eating is an approach that helps people heal from the side effects of chronic dieting and disordered eating. An intuitive eater rejects the diet mentality (a restrictive mindset) and pays as much attention to the body’s internal messages about what, when and how much to eat, as they do to information about health and nutrition. Decisions about food and eating do not impact an intuitive eater’s sense of self worth. Eating is a pleasurable experience free of guilt and shame.  Ellyn Satter says, “Normal eating takes up some of your time and attention, but keeps its place as only one important area of your life.”

Sounds pretty amazing, doesn’t it?

A person’s relationship with food and body is often overlooked when treatment providers’ main focus is on improving the quality of the diet. We believe that it can be assumed that many people have already been trying to change their eating habits (maybe for years), and their difficulty sustaining such changes has created feelings of shame and self-doubt, interfering with their ability to make good choices for themselves going forward. It all becomes a complicated cycle, which is rarely addressed in many treatment settings. There are other ways. At Be Nourished, we focus first on healing your relationship with food and body so that when you make choices about what to eat, they are rooted in weight-neutrality, kindness, and self-compassion. This makes the eating experience far more pleasurable. And when eating healthfully tastes good and it makes you feel better, you are more likely to continue honoring your health with your food choices.