0 Items



Family Meals Focus

The Ellyn Satter Institute Newsletter

Eating competence and nutrition facts labels

Nutrition facts labels on foods emphasize what and how much to eat. People who have been traumatized by food rules find the labels make them feel guilty and anxious about eating. In reality, food labels are unnecessary when you concentrate on the joy of eating and follow the division of responsibility in feeding. But if you can handle food labels, it is okay to consult them. They can show you what is in a food and whether or not it is worth purchasing. 

Does eating competence say to ignore food labels? 

A health professional writes of explaining to her father-in-law about eating competence: emphasis is on the how, not the what, about eating food you enjoy. “So, am I wasting time reading food labels?” he asked. Since his major myocardial infarction many years ago, he carefully reads labels on all that he eats, and eats only low-fat, low cholesterol food, with no trans fats. I put the question to my ESI colleagues, and here is what they (we) said.

Ines Anchondo: Wait to discuss food selection until after EC and sDOR are in place

Wait until after eating competence has been established and the division of responsibility in feeding is being followed (this may take many visits or just one, depending on the case). Then, if the person is interested in discussing food selection I would discuss it. I do not give directives or guidelines regarding good or bad foods or even better foods for that matter. I mainly talk about offering a variety of fats, more fresh fruits and vegetables (or canned and frozen). I suppose that if people are specifically interested in finding out if there is too much of one thing or another (e.g. trans fats) in the diets we could talk about it upon reviewing their food intake. I don’t focus on this. In the population I work with there is too much food insecurity to even begin to be so specific about nutrients. So, in a nut shell I don’t use food labels.

Pam Estes: Saying “choose healthy food” freaks people out

Chronic dieters can’t truly honor their appetite when “healthy” is a part of the mix because it is too fraught with anxiety and guilt.

I have worked with several referrals lately who have experienced muddling between How to Eat’s “pay attention to internals”1 and the conventional approach’s “choose ‘healthy’ foods” messages. They can’t truly honor their appetite when “healthy” is a part of the mix because it is too fraught with anxiety and guilt. Food labels just intensify those feelings, and are not something I talk about at all. Once they graduate from How to Eat, if they want to explore the differences presented by food labels, we can have a more interesting discussion. However, by then, they know the decision is theirs as to which they choose and honoring their own thoughts on the matter is just as important (or more important) as anything the labels tells them or I might have to add.

Yours truly: Part of eatng competence is knowing about food

Your relative’s comment was based on the common assumption that EC tells you to throw the baby out with the bathwater. That is, you throw away all controls and eat willy-nilly. The context management part of EC is all about being knowledgeable about food selection, food composition, etc. NOT ENSLAVED. The more you know about food composition, the freer and more relaxed you can be about eating what you enjoy and all kinds of food. 

Don’t let food selection information load you up with shoulds and oughts

I wrote about nutrition facts labels in Secrets of Feeding a Healthy Family chapter 13, “Choosing Food,” (a fine chapter if I say so myself). Like Ines and Pam, I am cautious about giving nutrition information, and wrote this cautioning message at the beginning of the chapter.  “If I were working with you clinically, I would wait to introduce this information until I was sure you were ready. You would be ready when you could do most of the behaviors on the checklist in Epilogue I, “How to Eat” [page 51 – about attitude, internal regulation, and food acceptance].2 You would have developed the meal habit and built up patterns of food selection that worked for you. At that point, nutrition and food selection information would reinforce what you were doing and answer questions that have occurred to you, rather than loading you up with shoulds and oughts.”3

How to use nutrition labels to help without harming

Within that context, starting on page 218, I talk about nutrition labels with the goal of helping readers “make use of the detail without getting caught in the rules.” Just as nutrition facts can enslave you, they can also set you free [page 201]: Knowing more about nutrition and food composition will reassure you that you can eat what you enjoy, including foods such as red meat, eggs, starchy and salty foods, and fats and sweets. Essentially, I spend this chapter “blessing the food.”3 “Foods you enjoy” could include some of the fat your relative is avoiding. Like a lot of people, he could be way more rigid about food selection than he needs to be. He could benefit from reading Secrets of Feeding a Healthy Family Appendix N: A Primer on Dietary Fat. If he can tolerate that, he might be able to stand Secrets of Feeding a Healthy Family Appendix L: Diet and Degenerative Disease. On the other hand, your father-in-law is scared of having another heart attack, has made his rigid diet a way of life, and has his reasons for following it. For him, it may be more negative than positive to learn to choose food in a kinder, gentler way.  

Some other day, we will talk about the futility of trying to tell relatives anything. 🙂


  1.   Satter EM. Chapter 4, Eat as Much as You Want. Secrets of Feeding a Healthy Family: How to Eat, How to Raise Good Eaters, How to Cook. Madison, WI: Kelcy Press; 2008:27-43.
  2.   E.M. S. Part 1 Epilogue. Secrets of Feeding a Healthy Family: How to Eat, How to Raise Good Eaters, How to Cook. Madison, WI: Kelcy Press; 2008.
  3.   E.M. S. Chapter 13, Choosing food. Secrets of Feeding a Healthy Family: How to Eat, How to Raise Good Eaters, How to Cook. Madison, WI: Kelcy Press; 2008:202-220.

Pin It on Pinterest

Share This