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Family Meals Focus

The Ellyn Satter Institute Newsletter

Are you tired of feeling bad about your eating?

by Ellyn Satter, Registered Dietitian and Family Therapist

Another New Year! Don’t set yourself up for failure with resolutions to lose weight, eat healthier, not eat so much, not eat fast food. Instead, discover the joy of eating: Feed yourself faithfully, and give yourself permission to eat. Go with your natural desire to get enough to eat of satisfying food, rather than trying to fight against it. Even though they don’t worry about what and how much to eat, the evidence shows that competent eaters do better nutritionally, are more active, sleep better, and have better lab tests.

How to Eat

Part one, “How to Eat,” in Secrets of Feeding a Healthy Family, tells you how to feel good about your eating at the same time as you achieve your health goals. Too busy to read 54 pages? Here is the Cliff Notes version:

Adjust your attitude

  • Celebrate eating. Eating is okay. Eating enough is okay. Enjoying eating is okay. Eating what you like is okay. Taking time to eat is okay. Making eating a priority is OKAY.
  • To be consistent and effective in feeding yourself and your family, build on enjoyment. Optimism, pleasure, and self trust are good motivators. Pessimism, avoidance, and self-doubt are poor motivators.
  • Today, far too much is made of the difficulties of eating: avoiding disease, not getting fat, not eating fat.
  • Today’s attitudes and behaviors around eating are punishing and negative. Because they are negative, they can’t be sustained.
  • Nobody can go through life expecting not to be fed and expecting not to take pleasure from food.
  • When the joy goes out of eating, nutrition suffers.

Honor your appetite

Striving for weight loss is up to you, but consider what it will do to your joy of eating.

Enjoy your food. What an alarming notion! Surely, wonder the food cops as well as the eaters, if we are given license to enjoy food, we will simply careen out of control, willy-nilly gobbling every morsel that comes across our voracious paths. But that is the dark side. What about the aspect of appetite that works for us, rather than against us?

  • Appetite is a natural and life-giving inclination. The interest in eating based on its aesthetic and gustatory rewards is a powerful motivator for food-seeking.
  • Even though appetite is compelling, it can be satisfied. It is normal to get enough to eat and to stop eating, even of highly enjoyable food.
  • Notice as you eat that at some point you lose interest. Food gradually – or suddenly – stops tasting as good. That is the sign that appetite is satisfied. 

Eat as much as you want

It just gets curiouser and curiouser! 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? That thinking leaves out an essential part of the equation: the body’s wisdom. Your body knows how much you need to eat. To recover your internal regulators of hunger, appetite, and satiety, learn to work with your body rather than against it. Exercise both permission and discipline.

  • The permission to let yourself choose foods you enjoy and eat them in amounts you find satisfying
  • The discipline of providing yourself with the structure of regular and reliable meals and sit-down snacks and paying attention to your food and to yourself while you eat.

Feed yourself faithfully

To be able to feel good about your eating and trust your body to help you with the what and how much of eating, you must provide yourself with the support you need.

  • You will do well with eating if you feed yourself reliably and well, go to some trouble to make food taste good, and take the time to tune in and enjoy your food.
  • On the other hand, you won’t do a good job with eating if you are casual about feeding yourself, grab food when you happen to think about it or when hunger drives you to it, absent-mindedly snack and nibble instead of taking time to feed yourself, or chronically restrict yourself.
  • While feeding yourself requires effort and discipline, the discipline can—and must—be positive: setting up regular and predictable mealtimes, taking time to eat, eating food you enjoy.
  • Avoid negative discipline: “If I made it, I should eat it.” “It isn’t good for me.” “That is way too fattening.” (Insert your guilt trip here.) 

Back to the New Years’ resolutions

Will becoming eating competent let you become healthier? Pretty good chance. Even though they don’t worry about what and how much to eat, people who are eating competent do better nutritionally, are more active, sleep better, and have better lab tests.Will becoming eating competent make you lose weight? Maybe. Probably not. Striving for weight loss is up to you, but consider what it will do to your joy of eating. You can have joy in eating and maintain your weight. If you have just lost weight, you are likely to gain it back, albeit more slowly than if you just fall off your diet. However, to lose weight you will have to give up some—and probably even a lot—of your joy in eating. 

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