Posted by: Hil | November 12, 2009

Spotlight: Ellyn Satter

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I think it’s high time for me to revive my “Spotlight” feature, which highlights people who have had a significant influence on the way that I view food, nutrition, and eating.  The latest addition to my group is Ellyn Satter, a nutritionist and writer.  She is best known for her work on how to feed children, but she has great things to say on adult eating as well.  Her philosophy is incredibly food positive and non-prescriptive.  She emphasizes the importance of variety, pleasure, regular family meals, and listening to the body’s cues of hunger and satiety.  She exudes calm and common sense, conveying the message that you really can trust your body and your appetite to tell you what is best for you as long as you provide it with some structure and a variety of food choices.  She advocates trying new foods, but not forcing yourself to eat something you don’t enjoy just because it is healthy.

I initially discovered Satter through her much quoted definition of normal eating:

Normal eating is going to the table hungry and eating until you are satisfied. It is being able to choose food you like and eat it and truly get enough of it—not just stop eating because you think you should. Normal eating is being able to give some thought to your food selection so you get nutritious food, but not being so wary and restrictive that you miss out on enjoyable food. Normal eating is giving yourself permission to eat sometimes because you are happy, sad or bored, or just because it feels good. Normal eating is mostly three meals a day, or four or five, or it can be choosing to munch along the way. It is leaving some cookies on the plate because you know you can have some again tomorrow, or it is eating more now because they taste so wonderful. Normal eating is overeating at times, feeling stuffed and uncomfortable. And it can be undereating at times and wishing you had more. Normal eating is trusting your body to make up for your mistakes in eating. Normal eating takes up some of your time and attention, but keeps its place as only one important area of your life.

In short, normal eating is flexible. It varies in response to your hunger, your schedule, your proximity to food and your feelings.

After reading this definition quoted for the third or fourth time, I visited Satter’s website and was extremely impressed with what I saw.

Most people who end up in one of my spotlight features are there because they have changed the way that I eat for the better.  Satter is here because she gave me vocabulary to describe aspects of my eating that I had previously lacked.  Satter invented the term “eating competence,” which has two aspects:  1) freedom to choose enjoyable food and eat it in satisfying amounts and 2) discipline to feed yourself regular, varied meals and to eat mindfully.  This concept is simple, but it set off a real light bulb moment in my head.

I am a big advocate of intuitive eating, but one thing that had always bothered me is that I know that healthy intuitive eating does not exist in a vacuum.  Simple suggestions such as “eat when you’re hungry and stop when you’re full” are hard to argue with, but seem to leave out a lot.  Without any context, following such instructions leaves my body feeling downright chaotic.  What my body tells me that I need after I’ve worked through lunch and only started thinking about dinner because I’m starving is very different than what my body tells me that I need when I’ve been eating regular, nutritious meals and snacks all day.  My body isn’t wrong in either case–if I’m starving, then of course my body wants something with lots of fat and starch and salt–but I definitely feel better when I plan out regular healthy meals.  I’ve often wondered whether my preferred manner of eating qualifies as “real” intuitive eating given that it often involves a high degree of menu planning and strategy.

Satter helped me sort this out.  Planning, discipline and strategy are good in so far as they make sure that you have regular balanced meals on the table and sufficient time to enjoy them.  The problems come when your brain tries to veto foods you enjoy, push foods that you don’t enjoy, or tell your body how hungry it should be.  This framework makes so much sense to me.  It’s such a great explanation of the balance between structure and intuition that I’ve struggling to articulate.

Satter has a website with lots of great content.  While much of it is geared toward families with children, there is also lots of material that is relevant for people without children.  I encourage you to take a look.

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