Eating Competency: The Key to Healthful and Joyful Eating



I hear it every day, the anxiety and uncertainty – “Nutrition is confusing. It seems as if the recommendations are always changing!” Indeed, a plethora of nutrition advice is offered by friends and celebrity bloggers. Nutrition misinformation, exaggeration, and downright falsehoods run rampant. Yet, even factual articles can be counterproductive to improving eating habits. Why? Because, most focus on what to eat - the newest superfood, low-carb, avoid this food or add that one. However, the key to healthful eating habits doesn’t rest with what we eat, rather, it is in how we eat.

This is not to throw the baby out with the bathwater! What we eat does matter for our health. However, a focus on calorie counting, specific nutrients or a few foods high or low in certain nutrients doesn’t automatically lead to better eating or health. Eating competency describes a specific set of attitudes skills that are linked to better diets, lower BMI, physical self-acceptance, and improved physical activity. Developed by Ellyn Satter, a registered dietitian and family therapist, the eating competency model focuses on:

  • Eating attitudes: being positive about eating and about food.
  • Food acceptance attitude and skills: being comfortable about the foods you like; flexible about foods you choose; and being interested in learning to like new foods. If you are in a situation that your preferred foods aren’t available, you are able to tolerate foods that you don’t particularly enjoy.
  • Internal regulation attitudes and skills: tuning into your internal signs of hunger, appetite, and fullness to know who much to eat. Not only being comfortable with eating enough, but also trusting yourself to eat enough for you. When it comes to weight, being able to reject outside pressure to strive for a body weight that isn’t right for you.
  • Contextual attitudes and skills: being thoughtful about feeding yourself by planning ahead and knowing how to prepare food. Meals and snacks are foods you enjoy. You pay attention to nutrition principles to guide planning without taking the pleasure out of eating.

Building and supporting eating competency is a core part of my practice and the topics I write about, therefore, I want readers and clients to know about this grounding idea. While it may feel abstract at first reading, underneath, eating competency is about developing practical, nutrition, mealtime, and eating skills within a context of nutrition principles.  

What do you think? Can you see how improving your eating competency can lead to healthful habits and joyful eating? Tell me about it in the comments.