"Competent eating" has a funny ring to it. Eating, as we tend to know it, is typically a pretty unconscious experience.
Fork to food, food to mouth. Chew. Swallow. Repeat.
But competent eating as a practice can be so much more. It can bring more connection and nourishment to our lives.
Ellyn Satter pioneered this idea of "competent eating"; as she defines it, competing eating occurs when a person can tell when they are hungry, identify what they're hungry for, and know how much of that food will satisfy them. Her focus is specifically on children and how eating behaviors learned in childhood remain with us for a lifetime; that is, unless we make a conscious choice to change them. Competent eating is about being in tune with the body, acknowledging its signals, and feeling confident in the choices we make in order to best fuel ourselves.
When we eat foods that don't support us - that is, foods that drain our energy, provide only empty calories, cause physical discomfort, and leave us without control of our emotions - we move further away from our connectedness to what our body needs. Signals of hunger, satiety, thirst, tiredness, etc etc become muddled under a cloud of habits and junk. We start to confuse one signal for another, acting out of line with what we truly need and perpetuating a cycle of disconnect. Great eating habits beget even better ones.
How can we know where to start when selecting foods to promote competent eating? Good question.
There is no one diet that works for everyone: this is good news! It offers a great deal of flexibility to explore what works best for your unique body (and it's not tricky to do). It just takes a willingness to get in touch with the sensations associated with different foods each time we try them. To begin with, give some thought to the foods that make you feel great: not "in the moment" great (followed by feeling horribly ill afterwards), but truly nourished and satisfied, throughout the meal and afterwards. What leaves you feeling well? Energized? Light? Start to play with these ideas each time you encounter an eating opportunity and make a mental note about which foods truly feel good.
If you can answer yes to each of the following, you may be on a good track to competent eating:
- I know what my body asks for.
- I can identify and fulfill cravings as they arise.
- I can tell the difference between thirst and hunger.
- My cravings are for real food.
- My energy is consistent throughout the day.
- I'm not preoccupied by food.
- Sometimes other things are more interesting than food.
If any of these feel inaccessible to you, that's okay! We can be so heavily influenced by the volume (and type) of foods by which we are surrounded: it makes sense that signals get lost somewhere along the way.
The beautiful thing is that when we tap into these (being mindful, listening to the distinctions between cravings, and being willing to explore hunger in different ways) we can open up a number of doors. Weight loss, better sleep, more consistent energy, and improved mood can all be by-products of tuning into what the body needs and feeding it in that specific way.
I love working with this concept of competent eating with my new parent clients. We discuss which foods their little ones are introduced to and the way they respond to it so that we may understand how the connections between the body's signals, the baby's preferences, and how the cultivation of an adventurous palate are developing. When children are given an opportunity to explore a variety of foods from the time they're introduced to solids, they can be more tuned into the effects food has on their body (and notice the effect of "if I feel this way, it means I'm hungry; if I eat something, this hungry feeling goes away". Rudimentary cause-and-effect problem-solving for the young mind is great for building a relationship with food!)
The good news is that learning to be a competent eater is not limited to children under twelve months of age. Even as adults, we can explore what makes us feel great and what our systems thrive on. Because this can change, it's nice to regularly check in with yourself and see if your food presently serves you in the way you need it to.
By starting to listen to what we need, we open up our ability to identify when we've had enough and when our systems are truly nourished. I've discovered this contributes to being able to connect better with myself and with the world around me. After all, when the body is happily functioning at its best, we have to worry about it less -- and have more energy to focus on the bigger picture.
How would finding your ideal foods (and ideal eating practices) change things for you?