Learning to Eat

Living in Fat Land is a bit of a through-the-looking-glass experience. The culture is neurotically focused on food consumption, frantically trying to figure out what magic substance should be added to/removed from our plates to roll back the Fat Tide. The food puritans and paranoiacs are convinced that the culprit for everything that is going wrong is to be found in the food itself. Without denying that there are food products that are contributing disproportionately to the expansion of societal body mass, it strikes me that the root of our gustatory woes are to be found in the how, not the what, of our eating.

Start with the most basic fact out there – restricting what we eat for the sake of losing weight as the primary goal does not have a statistically meaningful long-term success rate. People who diet will, with a few exceptions, regain what they lost and will often gain additional weight beyond that. I and every single person I know who has tried to diet can attest to this phenomenon. Ass is big, ass gets smaller, ass gets big again, ass gets a bit bigger. Wash, rinse, repeat.

Let’s start with another fact. People who are overweight do not eat foods that are dramatically different than people who are not overweight. We do not have two different types of food. People of all weight ranges eat a mix of foods, from take out to frozen pizzas to soda pop to home cooked to junk food to gourmet. The Spousal Unit is not fat, and we both eat the same meals at home. SU eats at a fast food joint every weekday for lunch. I eat fresh raw vegetables and hard boiled eggs. When we eat with our friends, we’re served a delicious mix of “junk” and “healthy” foods. I expect that people with severe economic constraints are not going to have the luxury of going out to a high-end restaurant as we did for our anniversary, but I also don’t presume that they will fail to eat as well as they can afford to.

Then there is the fact that fat people are not out-of-control binge eaters or regularly gorging on food. Simply eating a small amount more than other people over a long period of time is sufficient to add extra pounds. Pathologizing all overweight people as habitually engaging in a severe eating disorder when this simply is not true does no one any good, increases the guilt and frustration fat people feel when others assume how they must be eating, and may prevent individuals with actual disorders from being taken seriously and given appropriate medical treatment.

Finally, there is the inconvenient truth that the foods consistently identified by the food police as being at the root of our Obesity Epidemic are not consistently consumed by people who are obese. Plenty of fat people don’t drink sodas, don’t eat fast foods, don’t gobble ice cream and cookies, don’t consume frozen pizzas, etc. Plenty of people whop are not fat do consume these foods.

What is also true is that eating patterns have been significantly disrupted over the last 4 decades. Food is eaten on the go, calories are easier to come by, seated meals (as opposed to perpetual snacking and noshing) are on the wane, having a woman at home whose primary job it is to manage food purchase and preparation is very much on the way out, and so forth. Food ubiquity.

So, what does a focus on the how instead of the what get us? What does it look like? Will we stop getting fat if we do this?

Last question first: maybe. If we address the problem as one of developing an individual’s ability to eat well despite the distortions of our present food environment, then it is likely that individuals will consume fewer overall calories while maintaining their physical and mental health, and thus reduce the overall increase in body mass. It’s also equally likely that people who are fat (that would be me and about 2/3 of my American readers) may or may not see any decrease in their individual weight and it’s also possible that some of us will get a bit heavier than we are now. These possibilities are better news than our current trajectory, so, what the hell, worth a try, eh?

As for what it will look like, it will look, well, normal. Old-fashioned, even. It takes the form of having regular sit-down meals, scheduled snacks, and no snacking in between, only water. The work being done, however, all happens between your ears – developing eating competence. Until three weeks ago, I didn’t have language to explain it. Then I followed a link to the Ellyn Satter Institute web site and immersed myself in the resources there.


What follows is my personal take on this material. I do not claim that I have fully understood their methodology and approach. If something I say seems wrong, presume it is due to my misunderstanding of their approach. If you disagree with something I say, it is not the fault of ESI. I do not speak for them in any way and I am not affiliated with them. I do not advise anyone to follow what they do, though I encourage everyone to visit the site, read the articles, and come to your own conclusion. Finally, as I’ve said before, this is a political blog. I’m not offering medical advice of any kind. What I am interested in exploring is how this approach disrupts the conventional wisdom of the Diet Zombies not by disagreeing with nutritional facts (such as calorie counts) but by dissenting from the psychology and ideology of the food police.


Um, Ang? News flash – regular meals, snacks and no snacking between meals are mainstays of conventional dieting.

This is true because this is very much what I have been doing for a few years to reduce my weight. To the degree that my approach has helped me avoid the worst pitfalls of food ubiquity, it has been very good for me. However, it is still premised on food restriction, calorie reduction, and limiting intake. It still regards food as something that is apart from me and keeps me in too much of an adversarial and anxious relationship to food consumption. It is living with the terminal condition of being on a perpetual diet.

The Satter Eating Competence Model (ecSatter) has a few crucial differences from how I’ve always approached food. The biggest is simply dropping the adversarial stance towards food.

  • There aren’t good and bad foods – there’s just the food you want to eat
  • There is no restriction on what you can eat during a meal
  • There is no restriction on how much you can eat at a meal (with two important exceptions)
  • You eat what you want to, as much as you need, and quit when you are satisfied, not when you reach some arbitrary calorie/nutrient limit.

In short, you learn to identify and trust your natural metabolic processes to tell you when you’re done. From the web site:

Eating is supposed to be enjoyable. For too many of us, eating represents trouble. We feel guilty if we eat what we ”shouldn’t” and deprived if we eat what we ”should.” We eat more than we think we should, and we worry about weight. Surveys show that when the joy goes out of eating, nutrition suffers. Roughly half of today’s consumers who know about “official” dietary guides say they ”don’t really follow them.” Only 20% of consumers get their five-a-day of fruits and vegetables, and overweight is a major concern. What we are doing isn’t working. But what do we do instead?

Consider the evidence-based Satter Eating Competence Model (ecSatter), which encourages you to:

Rather than expecting you to manage your eating by the rules, ecSatter encourages you to base your eating on your body’s natural processes: hunger and the drive to survive, appetite and the need for pleasure, the social reward of sharing food, and the tendency to maintain preferred and stable body weight.

No directives to eat clean, eat healthy, eat only a little, don’t eat this or that, eat in moderation, count your carbs, restrict your fat, eat your vegetables, or any of that. There are only two exceptions to the food restrictions. First, soda pop and comparable high-sugar beverages should not be served to children at regular meals. They should be provided with milk and water, as much as they want. Soda should be treated like alcohol – a beverage for adults. Second, if dessert is served, everyone should only take one serving – one slice of cake, two cookies, a scoop of ice cream, etc. Even adults should follow this rule. However, if you want to eat dessert before the rest of dinner, have a ball.

To both of these rules, there is an exception that gently, intelligently displays the genius underlying the entire approach. On occasion, soda and/or desserts can be served without restriction for a snack. This is aimed at providing a snack to a child, but can easily be adopted by an adult. Give the kid a plate of oatmeal cookies (or whatever sweet), a refillable glass of milk, and let the kid go to town on the treat. At some point, they will lose interest and will stop eating the treat. The previously “forbidden” food now simply takes its ordinary place in the broader selection of foods that someone eats. Same with soda – have some bread and peanut butter and whatever soda flavor the kid wants to try. There is a oblique mention to serving it in cans, but no other specifics on the way to serve it except however much the kid wants to imbibe. My deep guess (not at all stated on the site, so 100% my interpolation and possibly 100% wrong) is that opening new cans acts as a psychological brake on soda consumption in a way that pouring it out of a liter bottle would not be, and thus subtly teaching the child restraint without making the parent into a food cop.

This approach is completely involved in the question of how to eat, but (with the exception of soda for kids and servings of dessert) has no regulatory mechanism for any particular kind of food. Do you want to eat McDonalds? That’s cool. Do you want to have macaroni and cheese? Then you should have it. Do you have canned peaches? Canned peaches are perfectly good food. Etc.

Yeah, I kept thinking there was a catch, too, but there isn’t. I strongly encourage you to go to the page How to Eat on the web site and read through the linked articles. They are all short, direct, clear and entirely non-judgmental.

The objective, or so it seems to me, is to help you off the Sisyphean treadmill, to help you develop the psychological strength to give yourself permission to like and enjoy eating, and to provide you with guidance to structure your physical environment such that you have a safe space in which to re-learn your body’s normal response to food. It works through granting permissions rather than through enforcing prohibition. It is the antithesis of food puritanism.

It also accepts that some people are fatter than others, and that’s OK. You aren’t a threat to civilization, you aren’t harming yourself, you will be much happier when you aren’t forcing your body into a state of low-level starvation, and you’ll probably have a stable body weight, which is definitely healthier for you than weight cycling.

So, I’m going to learn this way of eating. It is scaring me shitless because of the lack of rules and limits, but it is also deeply exhilarating. There is actually an awful lot of discipline called for in the formality of meal times. No casual snacking is problematic, even now, and I am wondering if black coffee counts as “water” for between meals. I’m sure I’ll figure it out once I get used to the basic proposition.

Just … eat.


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Posted in Anglachel, Food

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