Family Meals Focus

The Ellyn Satter Institute Newsletter

Eating competence: Internal regulation

by Ellyn Satter, Registered Dietitian and Family Therapist

You have good food regulation attitudes and behaviors when you are confident you will get enough to eat and trust your body’s internal signals of hunger, appetite and satiety to guide you in eating as much as you are hungry for.1 People who have high overall ecSI  scores, which measures their degree of eating competence, and particularly those who have high scores with respect to food regulation, have lower BMIs, are more physically active, and, most importantly, express greater satisfaction with their weight.2

Your body knows how much you need to eat

Being hungry and eager to eat can feel positive and exciting on the one hand, or negative and distressing on the other. The difference lies in whether you are confident that your hunger and appetite will be satisfied.

 Are we to throw caution to the wind and let every meal be Thanksgiving dinner? Won’t we just eat ourselves sick? Or at least gain a lot of weight? From the perspective of the Satter Eating Competence Model (ecSatter),1 such fears forget the body’s wisdom. Your body knows how much you need to eat. Essential to eating’s rich reward is having enough to eat. Being hungry and eager to eat can feel positive and exciting on the one hand, or negative and distressing on the other. The difference lies in whether you are confident that your hunger and appetite will be satisfied: that you can look forward to getting enough to eat of food that you find rewarding. The irony, in this land of plenty, is that most of us fear hunger, not because we lack the financial resources to provide for ourselves, but because we obligate ourselves to undereat. At any one time roughly three-quarters of both men and women are dieting to lose weight or maintain weight loss.3 As a result of all our dieting, most of us are potential overeaters because we try to get ourselves to stop eating before we are ready to stop. Contrary to the fears of the food cops, both internal and external, we don’t have a slothful inclination toward overindulgence. Rather, we overeat because we are restrained eaters: we chronically restrict ourselves. We restrict ourselves, that is, until we can’t stand it anymore, then we overeat.

Go with your desires; don’t fight against them 

Setting aside food restriction is like nutritional judo, going with the natural drive to eat as much as you want rather than fighting against it. After people learn to trust and honor their true and legitimate needs, they find that rather than periodically cutting loose and eating a lot of high-calorie food, they eat moderately and consistently of all food, all the time, and find it genuinely satisfying. Foods that are no longer forbidden become ordinary foods that can be consumed in ordinary ways. Large portion sizes become less appealing in the context of regular and reliable meals and snacks featuring adequate amounts of rewarding food. “Healthy” foods become enjoyable rather than dreary foods that must be eaten. 

Check yourself: Are you a restrained eater?  

Check yourself. You are being restrained when you feel deprived. You are disinhibiting when you sneak off to eat. The solution? Trust your body to help you find the middle ground between the two extremes. Feed yourself reliably and well and eat as much as you are hungry for. Your eating will fall into place when you learn to trust yourself, to be reliable about feeding yourself, to accept that taking pleasure in eating is natural, and to acknowledge that eating enough is essential.




1. Satter EM. Eating Competence: definition and evidence for the Satter Eating Competence Model. J Nutr Educ Behav. 2007;39 (suppl):S142-S153.

2. Lohse B, Satter E, Horacek T, Gebreselassie T, Oakland MJ. Measuring Eating Competence: psychometric properties and validity of the ecSatter Inventory. J Nutr Educ Behav . 2007;39 (suppl):S154-S166.

3. Serdula MK, Mokdad AH, Williamson DF, Galuska DA, Mendlein JM, Heath GW. Prevalence of attempting weight loss and strategies for controlling weight. JAMA. 1999;282:1353-1358.


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