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The Ellyn Satter Institute Newsletter

Practicing nutritional judo

by Ellyn Satter, Registered Dietitian and Family Therapist

What most of us really want with eating is to eat enough of food we genuinely enjoy. Going with that energy, rather than fighting against it, makes us healthier. Research with the Satter Eating Competence Model indicates that this nutritional judo works. Eating Competent people do better nutritionally and medically. They tend to have meals, eat a variety of food, not binge eat and have lower BMIs. They are more active, sleep better, and do a better job with parenting their children with food.

Nutrition policy expects us to overcome our food longings

For five decades, nutrition policy has said to eat more fruits and vegetables, lean meat, low-fat dairy products, high-fiber food and eat less high-fat, high-sugar foods, “empty” calories, and calories, overall, is the pursuit of recommended weight. While it is difficult to change diet, it isn’t nearly hard to make us feel bad about what we eat. Our average Healthy Eating Index score, a measure of adherence to the Dietary Guidelines, is around 50%,2 which is in the fair to poor category. If you ask us what we want to achieve nutritionally, we are likely to say, “eat more fruits and vegetables . . . eat less fast food . . . eat less sweets.” But is that what we really want, or is that what we want to want—or what somebody else wants us to want?

 What we really want

In my clinical practice during those same decades, I discovered that deep in their heart of hearts (or in their taste buds and stomachs), what most people, me included, really want is eating as much as we want of food we genuinely enjoy. So why not, I reasoned, practice nutritional judo? Why not go with the energy directed toward eating enough enjoyable food rather than fighting against it? So my patients and I did just that, and it was a revelation—and a revolution!  People did far better without the rules. They had meals, ate a variety of food, and stopped restricting and then overeating. The Satter Eating Competence Model 3 and the Satter Eating Competence Inventory (ecSI)4 came out of that clinical judo work. The rapidly accumulating ecSatter research shows that, like my patients, people who are Eating Competent, those who respect their food wishes and regularly provide themselves with food they enjoy, do better nutritionally and medically. They tend to have meals, eat a variety of food, and not binge eat. They are more active, sleep better, and do a better job with parenting their children with food. The benefit extends to the next generation: Children of EC parents have decreased nutritional risk.

Trust your energy to learn and grow

Nutritional judo works because we are born with the energy to learn and grow. According to Abraham Maslow,5 growth occurs on its own, in its own time, in a sequence that addresses our basic needs. From the foundation through the apex on Maslow’s pyramid-shaped hierarchy of growth, those needs are:

  1. Physiological needs: air, water, food, shelter, sleep, sex
  2. Safety, security, order
  3. Social affection: love, belonging
  4. Esteem, status; self-esteem and esteem by others
  5. Self-actualization: being all the individual can be.

As we satisfy needs at each level, we naturally address needs at the next level. We don’t have to make ourselves do it—we just do. Arranging food needs in a similar hierarchy, from the foundation through the apex, gives Satter’s Hierarchy of Food Needs.6

The energy to eat enough

Do you have enough to eat? If you are food insecure, on a weight-reduction diet, or on an airplane with no food stash, your major concern is getting something to eat. The hungrier you are, the more you find high-calorie foods appealing. It is food that quickly fills you up and drives away that compelling and frightening hunger.

  • The powerful drive to get enough to eat defeats weight reduction dieting. It also defeats policy-driven expectations7 that the one in three low income people suffering from food insecurity in this country8 will prioritize spending on fruits, vegetables, skim milk, and other relatively low-calorie food.
  • Consider that women who grow up poor develop a prevailing fear of going hungry, panic when there isn’t enough food, and have a tendency to binge-eat when food again becomes available.9
  • Periodic disinhibition, which strongly correlates with obesity and less-healthful food choices,10 goes along with periodically not having enough to eat, whether it is caused by fluctuating money or periodic weight-reduction dieting. In contrast, Eating Competent people, who eat consistently, have lower BMIs.4,11
  • Respectable, responsible, and hungry parents feed their families by going hungry themselves, scrounging other people’s leftovers, removing spoiled sections, slime, mold, and insects from food, and cooking meat found as road kill.12

If your income is low, you are wise to avoid good-food-bad-food thinking and, instead, follow Eating Competence consistent strategies that ensure your getting enough to eat: choose whole milk, fry, use butter or margarine on vegetables and on the table, and buy fruit canned in heavy syrup. And do it with a glad heart, without shame or recrimination. All the nutrients are still there, it just has more staying power.

The energy to eat “acceptable” food 

Do you have food you can stomach? Hand in hand with getting enough to eat is having access to food you consider “acceptable.” This is in large part experience-based. We learn from little on which foods are safe and desirable. My family never ate rice and considered a meal without potatoes as not being a meal at all. It may have been the opposite for you. People who scrounge for food discover what they can tolerate. One person finds using food stamps or going to food pantries acceptable, another doesn’t.

The energy to have reliable, ongoing access to food

Once today’s needs are satisfied, you can and will naturally begin to consider feeding yourself the next meal and the next day. You can and will do at least some cursory planning for subsequent meals, accumulate a food stash, and save up for food purchases. Having reliable access to enough acceptable food, not just today but also tomorrow and into the indefinite future, gives you food security.

The energy to have good-tasting food

Having achieved food security, your appetite will become more prominent. Most people prioritize taste in food selection,13 but that is only when they know they will get enough to eat. When you are starving, almost anything tastes good and you settle for “acceptable.” Now that you aren’t starving any more, you get pickier. Honor your appetite. You are entitled. This too, will pass.

The energy to seek novel food

After you have had plenty of time to eat as much as you want of food you enjoy, you will find yourself tiring of even your favorite foods. You will begin taking more interest in new foods or perhaps in familiar foods prepared in novel ways. You will begin to experiment. You will gradually increase the variety in your diet, which will improve its nutritional quality. Better nutrition is a nice side benefit, but don’t make it the primary benefit or you will revert to fighting against, rather than going with, your basic food-seeking energy. Once you have naturally grown to this level on the food hierarchy, you are in good shape nutritionally. Your energy to seek novel food will stay with you, and you will learn and grow nutritionally throughout your life. You will, that is, unless you pervert seeking novel food into a should rather than a want.

The energy to seek instrumental food

This is the level addressed in the item on ecSI 2.0, “I consider what is good for me when I eat.” When you have grown solidly through all of the other parts of the hierarchy, this is a both-and, not an either-or, consideration. You will eat food you enjoy and that you consider is good for you. If you have been traumatized by trying to force yourself to eat by the rules, it will take a long time before you can comfortably consider what is good for you when you eat. This is not to say that you will do poorly nutritionally if you don’t get to this level. Having grown and developed to point of seeking novel food or, before that, seeking good-tasting food, your nutritional status is likely to be just fine.

In skipping over all the other levels of the food hierarchy and concentrating on instrumental food, the Dietary Guidelines traumatizes us. It condemns our natural energy to eat enough of food we genuinely enjoy and sentences us to do the opposite.

 Trust yourself to learn and grow

Trust your process. Start at the bottom of the food hierarchy. Give yourself as much time as you need to grow through the levels. Feed yourself faithfully and give yourself permission to eat.

  • Take good care of yourself with food. Consider the food that is readily available. Figure out practical and enjoyable ways of providing yourself with three meals a day and sit-down snacks if you need them.
  • Eat what you are eating now. Just have it at regular meal- and snack-times.
  • Trust yourself to learn and grow. You will move up on the hierarchy when you are ready. Don’t try to push yourself beyond what feels genuinely comfortable to you. You will slow your growth, not speed it up.


  1. USDA. Scientific Report of the 2015 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee. 2015; http://www.health.gov/dietaryguidelines/2015-scientific-report/.
  2. Guenther PM, Kirkpatrick SI, Reedy J, et al. The Healthy Eating Index-2010 is a valid and reliable measure of diet quality according to the 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans. J Nutr. 2014;144(3):399-407.
  3. Satter EM. Eating Competence: definition and evidence for the Satter Eating Competence Model. J Nutr Educ Behav. 2007;39:S142-S153.
  4. 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.
  5. Maslow A. A theory of human motivations. 1943.
  6. Satter EM. Hierarchy of food needs. J Nutr Educ Behav. 2007;39 (suppl):S187-188.
  7. USDA. Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program Education Guidance. 2015; http://snap.nal.usda.gov/snap/Guidance/FinalFY2015SNAP-EdGuidance.pdf.
  8. Coleman-Jensen A, Gregory C, Singh A. Household food security in the United States in 2013. 2014; http://www.ers.usda.gov/media/1565415/err173.pdf.
  9. Olson CM, Bove CF, Miller EO. Growing up poor: long-term implications for eating patterns and body weight. Appetite. 2007;49(1):198-207.
  10. Bryant EJ, King NA, Blundell JE. Disinhibition: its effects on appetite and weight regulation. Obes Rev. 2008;9(5):409-419.
  11. Lohse B, Psota T, Estruch R, et al. Eating competence of elderly Spanish adults is associated with a healthy diet and a favorable cardiovascular disease risk profile. J Nutr. 2010;140:1322-1327.
  12. Kempson KM, Palmer Keenan D, Sadani PS, Ridlen S, Scotto Rosato N. Food management practices used by people with limited resources to maintain food sufficiency as reported by nutrition educators. J Am Diet Assoc. 2002;102(12):1795-1799.
  13. Glanz K, Basil M, Maibach E, Goldberg J, Snyder D. Why Americans eat what they do: taste, nutrition, cost, convenience, and weight control concerns as influences on food consumption. J Am Diet Assoc. 1998;98:1118-1126.

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