Going on a diet? Get good at eating instead
Did you kick off the year with a bold resolution to shed some unwanted kilos? It may be time to give up dieting for good. Research has shown that nurturing a positive relationship with food is a far healthier approach to eating.
It’s Boxing Day. You’re sprawled on the couch with an aching belly, still bloated from the countless slices of honey-glazed ham you binged on yesterday. The turkey, prawns and roast pork. The Christmas pudding, trifle and pavlova. Not to mention all that beer and bubbly.
It’s ok, you think. I’ll go on a diet in the New Year.
And if you follow the fad diet du jour, you may well shed some weight, for a while at least. But to borrow the words of Harriet Brown, author of the book Body of Truth, “… your chance of keeping if off for five years or more is about the same as your chance of surviving metastatic lung cancer: 5 per cent. And when you do gain back the weight, everyone will blame you. Including you.”
Sound familiar? If it does, it may be time to ditch the diet, stop blaming yourself when your diet inevitably fails, and start nurturing a healthy relationship with food.
Rediscovering the joy of eating: The Satter Eating Competence Model
In 2007, registered dietician Ellyn Satter developed the eating competence model, an approach to eating that involves “being positive, comfortable and flexible with eating as well as matter-of-fact and reliable about getting enough enjoyable and nourishing food”.
“Don’t set yourself up for failure with resolutions to lose weight, eat healthier, not eat so much, not eat fast food. Instead, discover the joy of eating,” Dr Satter says. “Go with your natural desire to get enough to eat of satisfying food, rather than trying to fight against it.”
So far, so good. No restrictive dieting, no calorie counting, no cutting out carbs, grains, gluten, dairy, fat or even sugar. You can eat what you want, when you want it, and never feel guilty about it.
For anyone who’s struggled with their weight and body image, that may be a bit hard to swallow. However, research has shown that those with eating competence have better diets, are more active, have a lower body mass index (BMI), sleep better and are more positive about eating.
Associate Professor Leah Brennan, a clinical and health psychologist who leads ACU’s Body Image, Eating and Weight Clinical Research Team, said the eating competence model had developed in response to society’s obsession with dieting.
“The model contradicts all the dieting messages we get, and many people are sceptical of the idea that they can relax and eat what they like; they have misconceptions that it will mean they’ll just eat junk and put on a lot of weight, but actually the research shows the opposite is more likely to happen,” Associate Professor Brennan said.
“If you go back to our grandparents, they probably were very eating competent in the context of what they had available to them, but that's been lost over time as we've been given layers and layers of different and competing dietary information.”
The dawn of the anti-dieting age
In recent years the movement against dieting has started to gain traction, thanks in part to books like Professor Linda Bacon’s Health at Every Size. The eating competence model goes further by suggesting that the questions of how and why we eat are much more important than what or even how much we eat.
“When people are restrictive in their eating, when they set strict rules in place around not eating certain foods, they are actually more likely to eat those foods in larger amounts in the medium to long term,” Associate Professor Brennan said.
“You may lose weight to begin with, but dieting is actually a very strong predictor of weight gain in the long term ... the vast majority of people do not sustain a diet.
“And because many people are starting to catch on to this, these days lots of new diets try to say, ‘Oh look, we're not a diet, we're a healthy eating plan', but they usually have rules about what and/or when to eat in order to lose weight, which makes them a diet!”
Are you a competent eater?
How do you know if you’re “eating competent”? Yo-yo dieters don’t fit the mould, and neither do junk food fiends. Even health food freaks don’t qualify.
Mary Glascott, an ACU psychology student whose thesis was the first study to investigate the validity of the Satter Eating Competence scale in an Australian sample, said competent eaters are relaxed about their food choices and naturally settle into nourishing food patterns.
“It’s not so much about eating healthy food, it’s about being psychologically adjusted towards eating, so that you are not overly concerned with things like your weight and shape,” Ms Glascott said.
“It’s the opposite of having an eating disorder. That is, being relaxed around food, enjoying food, responding to your bodily cues and not being scared of the so-called ‘bad foods’.”
The Ellen Satter Institute has developed a survey to assess eating competence, including questions on whether you feel positive about food and eating, eat a wide variety of foods, trust that you will eat enough to satisfy your nutritional and hunger needs, and take the time to eat regularly and mindfully.
“The underlying philosophy is that if you have a positive, adaptive approach to eating, you’ll eat better food and your body will naturally grow to the weight it should be cruising at,” Ms Glascott said.
“It’s more about your overall approach to eating, rather than focusing on consuming or avoiding particular nutritional food groups, which is what contemporary diets are more concerned with.”
So, where do I start? How to adopt a non-dieting approach to eating
While the stated benefits of eating competence — a more positive outlook, higher self-esteem, better cardiovascular health and a lower BMI — are obviously appealing, you might be thinking it sounds easier said than done.
The Ellen Satter Institute says it all boils down to four basic tenets: adjusting your attitude, honouring your appetite, eating as much as you want and feeding yourself faithfully.
That means avoiding “attitudes and behaviours around eating [that] are punishing and negative”, eating intuitively by “recovering your internal regulators of hunger, appetite, and satiety”, and exercising “both permission and discipline”.
“Trying to get rid of the binary of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ food is the first thing, because the feelings of guilt and shame associated with indulging in ‘bad foods’ often drive people to yo-yoing a bit more,” Ms Glascott said.
“It’s also about cultivating a relationship with food where you can indulge in something that is pleasing without feeling like you have to punish yourself.”
So, what does that mean for my bold plan to get slim?
So you started the new year with a plan to get skinny, but failed. Well, you're not alone.
Most New Year’s resolutions, including those concerned with losing weight, are doomed to failure, with estimates that only one in 10 succeed in the long term. And the more you fail at keeping them, the more likely you are to fail at subsequent attempts.
But if that doesn’t discourage you, the architect of the eating competence model, Ellyn Satter, has some words of advice to those considering kicking off the year with a diet.
“People say: ‘I’m not going to eat all those delicious foods I love. I’m only going to eat fruits and vegetables and other ‘good’ foods.’ Fruits and vegetables are wonderful, but if you’re eating them as penance, you’re not going to enjoy them,” Dr Satter said.
“Then when you throw away control and eat what you really enjoy, you neglect them. Rather than haranguing yourself about what you should and shouldn’t be eating, trust yourself to eat food you enjoy. No food is off limits. Provide yourself with structure and pay attention while you eat, and you are well on your way to being eating competent.”
ACU’s Body Image, Eating and Weight Clinical Research Team, led by Associate Professor Leah Brennan, conducts clinical research examining the psychological aspects of feeding, eating, weight and body image. Learn more about the Satter Eating Competence model.
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