Each day we are inundated with so much information on food and body image…try this and lose weight, you should look like this…, take this and watch the weight come off, try Keto/Paleo/countless other diets. Many of us are obsessed with what we eat and what we look like. Perhaps we have not given thought to developing a healthy relationship with food, or even know what that is. A framework to help us view food in a more healthy, appropriate way is Ellyn Satter’s Eating Competence Model. Ellyn Satter is a registered dietitian, family therapist, and internationally recognized authority on eating and feeding. With 50 years of experience and research, she pioneered the Satter Eating Competence Model (ecSatter). Ellyn Satter has a plethora of information available on her website, as well as in her books and teaching materials.
For this post, I interviewed Jennie Ours, LCSW about Eating Competence. Jennie has many years of experience helping others achieve their optimal wellbeing, utilizing her extensive knowledge and excellent insight. I hold her in high esteem.
Alison: What population/issue are you most passionate about?
Jennie: It is hard to narrow down the issue I am most passionate about, or even the population of individuals I most enjoy working alongside of, but it most definitely includes the topic of developing healthy relationships with body image and eating. Other issues close to my heart include the foster care and adoption field, and working with individuals who have prior trauma as they weave their story into one of healing and victory.
Alison: What is Eating Competence? Why is this important?
Jennie: Eating competence is not a term the general population is familiar with. Often in our society we are bombarded with current eating trends, fad diets, latest breakthroughs from the experts on healthy eating, most of which are associated with weight loss and seeking an improved appearance. An alternative to those approaches that focus on rules, restrictions, and avoidance, is a model referred to as Eating Competence. The main reason I love sharing about this topic is that as a society we are hyper- focused on battling the scale and have lost the ability to simply enjoy food and trust that our bodies know how much to eat. We lack the ability to feed our families with confidence, but we know at some level, what and how we serve food matters. Ellyn Satter, a globally recognized nutritionist, family therapist and authority on eating and feeding, developed an eating competence model and coined the term “joy of eating.” Eating competence allows an individual to be “positive, comfortable, and flexible with eating, as well as matter-of-fact and reliable about getting enough to eat of enjoyable food.” It sounds simple, but it is rare in our society for people to enjoy a healthy relationship with food, free of guilt and full of joy and freedom. The approach emphasizes listening and trusting one’s own body to eat what is a satisfying amount and knowing how to stop when full. This method of developing eating competence takes time because it contrasts with the way most of us approach mealtimes.
Alison: Are healthy eating and being a competent eater mutually exclusive?
Jennie: Many people are looking for a sustainable way to be healthy and experience overall wellness. They realize there is a connection between what and how we eat with how we feel and experience our daily lives. Therefore, identifying a consistent way to feed ourselves and our families healthy meals is essential. Rather than dieting and other restrictive strategies, the Satter Institute advocates a very different way of approaching food. Their approach is well supported by an extensive amount of published research. The institute sums up their results explaining, “Even though they don’t worry about what and how much to eat, competent eaters do better nutritionally, are more active, sleep better and have better medical tests. They are more self-aware and self-accepting, not only with food, but in all ways. To be a competent eater, be relaxed, self-trusting and joyful about eating, and take good care of yourself with food.”
Alison: Why do you share this model with others?
Jennie: I enjoy sharing with people this approach to healthier eating because it’s not only about creating a healthy relationship with food, but also a springboard to overall improved mental wellness. A CDC study from 2013–2016, reveals over 49% of adults in the United States had tried to lose weight within the previous 12 months. This shows adults who are likely caught up in a cycle of negative self-talk about their bodies, what clinicians refer to as “body shaming.” They are at the mercy of constant negative cultural messages through social media and other sources leading them to try to control what they eat to achieve a particular appearance. This same cycle extends to our children at younger and younger ages. Children overhear conversations about appearance, weight, and body types that have negative connotations, leading them into a similar cycle, often creating an unhealthy relationship with food.
Alison: How does the framework deal with “forbidden” foods?
Jennie: What if we approached food differently? For instance, we have heard of the importance of family dinners through studies explaining it helps children attain better grades and be less likely to use drugs. What if dinner time didn’t include power struggles over eating vegetables and it allowed children (and adults) to explore food they enjoy eating, to have permission to eat as much or as little as they like? One of the highlights of Satter’s model is for families not to have anything be “forbidden foods.” The concept of “forbidden foods” has been shown to lead to overeating and indulgent consumption. To counter this Satter suggests having a neutral approach to food. Have a household culture where all foods can be enjoyed at appropriate times.
Alison: What is the Division of Responsibility?
Jennie: If we reflect on our own experience with food, we can acknowledge our appetites wax and wane, as do our taste preferences. Children’s appetites and tastes preferences do as well! Satter’s Division of Responsibility identifies the roles the parent and child have in helping the child become a “good eater.” The model states that a practical way to begin to develop a “good eater” is for the parent to provide structure that is appropriate for the child’s developmental stage, such as instituting reliable mealtimes and having readily available snacks. The adult determines when and where the child will eat and what they will be offered. Conversely, the child decides how much of the provided food they will eat. Satter writes in Secrets of Feeding a Healthy Family, “Good eaters have positive attitudes about food, can learn to like new foods that are available to them, and intuitively eat the amount of food they actually need for growth.”
Alison: How does eating competence differ from the various diets (Whole30, Keto, Weight Watchers, etc.)?
Jennie: As you can tell, eating competence differs quite greatly from the trendy diets such as Paleo, Keto, Whole 30, etc. The Satter method can include some of these recipes and healthy, nutritional food as it is an approach to developing a healthy relationship with food, not a diet. It is not void of comfort foods that children and adults enjoy and, if they do not learn to have a healthy relationship with, often tend to over consume. If someone asks me, how do you start to make this shift to becoming a competent eater and/or teaching children to approach food based on division of responsibility, I refer them to the Ellyn Satter Institute, which has a wealth of knowledge and resources on how to begin ushering in a healthier relationship with eating. Since we eat three times a day and often have a snack, we can see how essential it is to have a relaxed and enjoyable experience at mealtimes. We can possess the ability to know moderation, create adventurous eating, and trust our instincts to get the nourishment we need. I hope you take the time to explore her resources and books!
Alison: As a mom and a clinician, do you have any other feedback?
Jennie: As a mother of three kiddos, I do not get this right all the time. Most of us could agree, we have prior “junk” regarding our relationship with food and body image. It is hard to be raised in American culture without some degree of unhelpful or distorted views on food and body image. As parents, our goal has been to offer our kids the best atmosphere we can to combat what culture, social media, and other influences in their life will offer them regarding this topic. We avoid talking about “diets”, insulting our body types or sizes, or fixating on the topic of food. Instead, we try to offer a variety of foods, engage our kids cooking alongside us, and try to build autonomy. So sure, there have been times I’ve worried and argued over whether they are not eating enough vegetables. I forgive myself when I drop the ball, and simply look for a better way to handle those situations the next time. Undoubtedly, I desire for our whole house to simply enjoy food, as Satter would describe the joy of eating. When I realize we are in a tug-of-war over my children wanting another snack, or I worry they are being too picky, I am thankful Satter laid the groundwork for a better way to go forward. So, we do just that, move on the path and hope that America will join along, too.
For more information on Ellyn Satter, visit her website. A huge thank you to Jennie Ours, LCSW for her contribution to this post!
Alison Curtis, LPC, provides individual, couple, and family therapy in our Sterling, VA office and virtually to those located in the State of Virginia. Call or email today to set up your first appointment or a complimentary consultation with Alison.