When it comes to eating, many people put the cart before the horse. In other words, they focus on what to eat before giving care and attention to how they eat. To use another analogy, it’s like deciding what furniture to put in a house before actually building the house.

It’s a pattern I see time and time again. Someone is focused on improving their nutrition because they want to lose weight or are worried about their cholesterol or blood sugar, but it turns out they’re skipping meals, grazing mindlessly or locked in a cycle of yo-yo dieting.

Getting to a place where you love your food but it also loves you back — in terms of meeting your body’s need for fuel and your need for eating satisfaction — requires less focus on the what and more on the how. This may feel counterintuitive in today’s dieting culture, but learning to listen to and trust your body’s wisdom about what it needs — that’s actually intuitive. Fortunately, there are three excellent frameworks for helping you improve your relationship with food: eating competence, intuitive eating and mindful eating.

Eating Competence

Eating Competence is the brainchild of registered dietitian Ellyn Satter, RD, MS, LCSW, and is outlined in her book “Secrets of Feeding a Healthy Family: How to Eat, How to Raise Good Eaters, How to Cook” and on her website. When I interviewed Satter for an article a few years ago, I asked her to name the biggest misconception people have about eating competence. “That it’s about eating the right food and avoiding the wrong food,” she said. “They get into the ‘good food, bad food’ right away.”

Much like Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, Satter has a hierarchy of food needs. “The bottom line for all of us is getting enough to eat. That’s an issue for people who live with food insecurity along with those who are chronically on a weight reduction diet.” She said once someone has enough to eat, they can move up the hierarchy to making sure they have enough enjoyable food. “You have to be able to provide yourself with that foundation. Once you have enough food you enjoy and you’re good at providing yourself with that, then you’re going to do better at planning ahead.” So, not playing catch as catch can with whatever’s convenient or available.

“After they do that, people typically get kind of picky. Eventually they get to the point where they take interest in unfamiliar foods,” she said, which helps build a more varied and nutritious diet. Accordingly, research shows that competent eaters have higher-quality diets, in part because not forcing yourself to eat fruits and vegetables will allow them to become foods you eat for pleasure. “People eat nutritious food because they enjoy it, not because they have to. The bedrock of eating competence is that you enjoy eating and feel good about it.”

Intuitive Eating

The origins of intuitive eating began in the 1980s, and were formalized in 1995 when registered dietitians Evelyn Tribole, MS, RD, and Elyse Resch, MS, RDN, published the first edition of their book, “Intuitive Eating.” They published a companion workbook in 2017, and this year brought “Intuitive Eating Every Day,” which contains 365 bite-size nuggets of wisdom, an Intuitive Eating card deck, and “The Intuitive Eating Journal.”

There 10 principles of intuitive eating, include rejecting the diet mentality, honoring your hunger, respecting your fullness, making peace with food, discovering satisfaction and respecting your body. Research has found that intuitive eaters have better psychological well-being and are more likely to engage in health-promoting habits. They also have better body image and are less likely to develop an eating disorder.

As with Satter’s eating competence model, many people try to turn intuitive eating into a rules-based “hunger-fullness diet.” While intuitive eating involves learning to tune in — and respect—hunger and fullness cues, it’s to help you nourish yourself and be satisfied by your food. Yes, nutrition is part of intuitive eating, but Tribole and Resch save the “honor your health with gentle nutrition” principle for last, because, frankly, many people already obsess about nutrition, and need to focus on relearning how to trust their bodies, first.

What is gentle nutrition? “Make food choices that honor your health and tastebuds while making you feel well. Remember that you don’t have to eat a perfect diet to be healthy. You will not suddenly get a nutrient deficiency or gain weight from one snack, one meal, or one day of eating. It’s what you eat consistently over time that matters, progress not perfection is what counts.”

Mindful Eating

Mindfulness and mindful eating are components of both Eating Competence and Intuitive Eating, but as a stand-alone practice mindful eating is more nebulous. The term “mindful eating” is tossed around frequently, but interpretations vary widely. The Center for Mindful Eating (TCME), which offers a wealth of resources, defines mindful eating as:

  • Allowing yourself to become aware of the positive and nurturing opportunities that are available through food selection and preparation by respecting your own inner wisdom.
  • Using all your senses in choosing to eat food that is both satisfying to you and nourishing to your body.
  • Acknowledging responses to food (likes, dislikes or neutral) without judgment.
  • Becoming aware of physical hunger and satiety cues to guide your decisions to begin and end eating.

Unfortunately, like Eating Competence and Intuitive Eating, many people try to turn mindful eating into a diet, and it’s even been co-opted by some diet companies, including Weight Watchers. Indeed, much of the research on mindful eating has, unfortunately, been weight loss focused, which goes against the spirit of mindfulness. If you want to explore mindful eating on your own, I recommend the “Eat What You Love, Love What You Eat” books by Michelle May, MD, and “Well Nourished” by Andrea Lieberstein, MPH, RDN.

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Carrie Dennett, MPH, RDN, is a Pacific Northwest-based registered dietitian nutritionist, freelance writer, intuitive eating counselor, author, and speaker. Her superpowers include busting nutrition myths and empowering women to feel better in their bodies and make food choices that support pleasure, nutrition and health. This post is for informational purposes only and does not constitute individualized nutrition or medical advice.

Seeking 1-on-1 nutrition counseling? Carrie offers a 6-month Food & Body program (intuitive eating, body image, mindfulness, self-compassion) and a 4-month IBS management program (low-FODMAP diet coaching with an emphasis on increasing food freedom). Visit the links to learn more and book a free intro call to see if the program is a good fit, and if we’re a good fit!

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