Whether you’re looking at your favorite restaurant’s seasonal specials or your family’s holiday dinner, it’s difficult not to be tempted by the wide array of festive-themed treats. Instead of abstaining from the food you want to eat (or feeling guilty after you eat it), there’s another option — an eating practice that nourishes your body, promotes overall health and allows you to eat food you love.
This practice is called competent eating. It’s a “weight-neutral” approach, meaning it’s not centered on weight loss or thinness as a final goal and allows you to give your body what it needs — without the guilt of traditional dieting.
What is competent eating?
Chelsea Whealdon, a dietician at UW Medical Center – Roosevelt, says that competent eating is an evidence-based personal eating practice that allows you to feel positive, comfortable and flexible with eating, and matter-of-fact about getting enough of both nourishing and enjoyable food.
The competent eating model was created by Ellyn Satter, a dietician and family therapist who for decades published books and journal articles promoting a joyful, positive relationship with food. Research shows that eating competence is associated with a healthier lifestyle, higher diet quality and a lower risk of cardiovascular disease.
“Traditional diets can lead to a lot of disappointment and self-blame,” says Whealdon. “They tend to focus on food restriction and lead to eating extremes. With eating competence, there’s a huge emphasis on trusting yourself with eating, as well as taking good care of yourself with food.”
Plus, you can actually eat what you like: Eating competence emphasizes being intentional about your food selection so that you get nutritious foods regularly, but not so restrictive that you miss out on the things you really enjoy eating.
There are four main tenets of a competent eating practice:
The first step is reevaluating your attitude toward food.
“Competent eaters have positive, relaxed attitudes about eating,” says Whealdon. “They eat in amounts they find satisfying. They enjoy food and eating and are comfortable with their enjoyment.”
It may seem counter-intuitive, but allowing yourself to have foods you like, including previously “forbidden foods,” can make them more ordinary and actually lead to moderation around these kinds of treats and snacks in the long run. This can ultimately help you feel more positive about eating overall.
Eating competence also encourages people to take an interest in what they eat, experiment with unfamiliar food and gradually enjoy more types of cuisines. “Eating a wide variety is one of the best ways to ensure you are meeting your nutritional needs,” says Whealdon.
This could look like ordering a meal you’ve never tried or searching for new recipes to cook. You can start small by adding a different side to your meal or making tweaks or additions to foods you already like.
Whealdon explains that competent eaters rely on their internal signals of hunger and fullness to guide what types of food they eat and how much, rather than the kinds of external rules often set in traditional diets.
In short, if you are hungry, you should trust yourself to eat what you need to satisfy your hunger. On the flip side, tuning in a bit more while eating may help you feel your fullness and stop when you are satisfied.
The practice’s final component focuses on being intentional around your eating context, or the way you plan and take time to eat.
“Competent eaters feed themselves faithfully,” says Whealdon. “They plan their meals, take time to eat, and use various strategies to eat regular meals and snacks.”
This helps create structure around eating and provides the body reassurance that another opportunity to eat is right around the corner, which lessons anxiety around food and actually helps people eat in normal amounts.
How is competent eating different than dieting?
“With dieting, someone might correlate their value — ‘I was good today’ — with not eating certain foods. They might associate a thought like, ‘I was bad,’ with eating certain foods,” says Whealdon. This attitude can create a lot of mental angst around eating decisions throughout the day, can lead someone to associate their own self-worth with the foods they eat or even put them at risk for disordered eating.
The differences don’t stop there.
“Diets are generally restrictive in nature, use external rules to guide an individual’s eating and are really not sustainable,” she says. “They often lead to a lot of distress, shame and self-blame for people who have tried and struggled with dieting.”
To add to these negative feelings, dieting can also thrust you into the perpetual loop of “weight cycling,” which is just as frustrating as it sounds: you initially lose weight through a traditional diet, then regain the weight when you stop, before losing it again with a new diet … and so on.
“This cycle can cause a lot of anguish, and in some cases, may actually lead to adverse health outcomes in the long-term,” says Whealdon.
The competent eating approach, on the other hand, isn’t focused on weight loss. It aims to support healthy behaviors rather than focusing on a number on the scale.
“Sometimes people think that a non-diet approach means throwing all caution to the wind,” says Whealdon. “In actuality, there is a huge nutrition component to eating competence, but it doesn’t show up just by being told what to eat.” Instead, it helps facilitate healthy and positive eating habits for the long haul.
How to start practicing competent eating
Whealdon outlines a few different ways you can start your competent eating practice.
If you often skip meals or snacks and get extremely hungry during the day, start by focusing on nourishing yourself consistently.
If you are someone who gets a lot of anxiety in certain food situations, reassure yourself that it’s OK to eat — do your best to sit down and enjoy.
If you feel like you’re governed by a lot of different food “rules,” try including more foods that you genuinely love to eat.
If you’re bored with your eating routine, start slowly trying new foods or recipes.
So this holiday try to give yourself permission to enjoy your food while being mindful of the variety on your plate and what it feels like to be truly satisfied.
But remember, these habits don’t form overnight. Be patient with yourself and know that, unlike a diet, you can take the time you need to learn what your body needs. It’s about how you’re eating, not just what you eat.
“It’s not always easy, and the process can look different for everyone,” says Whealdon. “The anti-fatness and weight bias in our society has created deep and unjust inequities around body image, trust and relationship with food.”
Don’t be afraid to reach out for help — in addition to working with a dietitian, it’s OK if you need additional support to get you on your way to a healthy and trusting relationship with food.