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Family Meals Focus

The Ellyn Satter Institute Newsletter

Preventing holiday weight gain

by Jean Fain, LICSW, MSW Reprinted with permission from The Huffington Post

Sadly, too many party goers are more focused on their ever-spreading mid section than spreading holiday cheer. If all you really want for Christmas is the secret to overcoming overeating, you’re in luck. I recently discussed preventing seasonal weight gain with one of the leading experts on feeding our families and ourselves: Ellyn Satter. Before I devoured Satter’s writing on food and family, I gobbled up her definition on normal eating. Even if you’re familiar with Satter’s un-American definition, it’s worth rereading. 

As a psychotherapist and dietitian, Satter really understands why the great majority of us feel compelled to eat like there’s no tomorrow. So when it came time for my annual interview on seasonal eating concerns, I could think of no better subject than the author of Secrets of Feeding a Healthy Family. What follows are questions and answers from my recent conversation with Ellyn Satter. 

Fain. How would you describe normal holiday eating?

Satter. Normal eating is all about trusting yourself to eat in a way that is right for you. The trouble most people have with holiday eating is they get caught up in what they should and shouldn’t eat. They’re anxious and ambivalent about eating. They might try to resist at holiday parties, but the table is laden with oh-so-appealing “forbidden foods,” and they throw away all control and overdo it. Many times they come to parties over-hungry because they’re trying to restrict themselves and lose weight. So the standard definition of holiday eating becomes eating way too much.

Fain. How about your approach to healthy eating: “Eating Competence.” How would you describe that?

Satter. Rather than haranguing yourself about what you should and shouldn’t be eating, you trust yourself to eat food you enjoy. No food is off limits. Which isn’t to say you eat like there’s no tomorrow. With eating competence, you work with your hunger, appetite, and satisfaction by eating meals and snacks, and by paying attention while you’re eating. You trust yourself to eat as much as or as little as is right for you. It sounds wild and strange, but lots of research tells us being eating competent works. 

Fain. What does eating competence look like at a holiday party?

Satter. You take your plate and pick and choose what you find most appealing. You sit down and eat if you can. If not, do what you need to do to enjoy your food: stand in a quiet place, attach yourself to a group that will let you eat in peace. Go back for more as many times as you want and eat until you feel satisfied. That’s the opposite of standard party eating, where a person doesn’t take time to eat. The food may taste good momentarily, but, because they’re not really paying attention, it’s just absent-minded munching.

Fain. What do you tell clients who are worried about gaining weight?

When I suggest what you’re suggesting, new clients say: “If I let myself eat whatever I want, I’d really pack on the pounds.” 

Satter. Competent eaters don’t gain weight over the holidays because they’re accustomed to eating as much as they want of the foods they enjoy all year long. Holiday eating just gives more opportunities to eat good food. It’s not a big deal to go home too full because you probably won’t be too hungry the next day. Conversely, controlling eaters say: “I really overdid it! I have to cut down today.” They deliberately under-eat, which sets them up for another bout of overdoing it. Come New Year’s, they gotta get back on the diet. This vicious cycle creates a lot of misery, and, in the long run, weight gain. The strange thing is that most people believe that being hard on themselves is somehow better than being positive and sympathetic.

Fain. Can you say more about New Year’s resolutions?

Satter. People say: “I’m not going to eat all those delicious foods I love. I’m only going to eat fruits and vegetables and other ‘good’ foods.” Fruits and vegetables are wonderful, but if you’re eating them as penance, you’re not going to enjoy them. Then when you throw away control and eat what you really enjoy, you neglect them. Instead, think in terms of nutritional judo: go with your desire to eat as much as you want of foods you enjoy rather than fighting against it. Provide yourself with structure and pay attention while you eat, and you are well on your way to being eating competent. 

Fain. How do you suggest parents help their children become competent eaters?

Satter.  Follow the division of responsibility in feeding throughout children’s growing-up years. Have meals and sit-down snacks, and regularly incorporate “forbidden foods.” Don’t set up deprivation with sugary, fatty foods. Deprivation does the same things to children as it does with adult dieters — they restrict, then overdo it when they can. When you serve dessert, serve everyone a single portion. Let everyone eat it when they want — before, during or after the meal. Periodically, at snack time, get out the milk and a whole plate of cookies, and let children eat as many as they want. If they haven’t been allowed to eat cookies, they’ll eat a lot of them at first. But if you do this repeatedly, the newness will wear off. The child will eat a cookie or two and be fully satisfied. It works.

Fain. I can hear parents worrying their kids will get fat. What would you say to those parents?

Satter. Restricting kids doesn’t work. Forcing them to eat healthy foods doesn’t work. What works is following the division of responsibility in feeding, trusting children to learn to eat the food you eat, and letting chlldren grow up to get bodies that are right for them.  

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