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What Is Healthy Eating?

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Whenever I tell someone that diets don’t work, they follow up with, “OK, but then what does?” or “What should we eat?”

We’re so used to the idea of dieting that we yearn for rules, for barriers, for restrictions to keep us eating “right.” And when we don’t have any regulations, we get confused, uncomfortable and maybe even disappointed.

Years ago, I remember sitting with my furrowed brows, thinking, “So I can eat whatever I want? Really?” What do I do with that information? And, wait a minute, how do I keep myself in line?

Our society — the billion-dollar diet industry, women’s magazines, health publications, TV shows — has shaped this kind of thinking. Our society promotes running a tight ship with food. We’re essentially encouraged to stalk, yes, stalk, our food intake.

Whether we count points, calories or fat grams or keep a food journal or observe and restrict ourselves in other ways, the message is the same: Rules are critical, and perfection is, too.

Plenty of resources vilify foods and categorize them into “good” and “bad” types. Plenty of resources tell you to forgive yourself for having a piece of cake, but warn you to “get back on track” and “eat right” the next day — or else risk serious repercussions.

What has happened is that, today, we’re uncomfortable around food. We regularly question our choices. We feel shame and guilt when we do eat what we want.

We worry about our weight, and may shun foods that are actually more nutritious but higher in calories for fear of weight gain. (For instance, have you ever seen the sodium content on low-fat soups or other supposedly healthier options?  They’re often highly processed and loaded with sketchy substitutes.)

And we’ve lost touch with our bodies. We may be iffy on signs that we’re hungry. Or signs that we’re getting full.

Today, I’d like to share with you the work of Ellyn Satter, MS, RD, LCSW, BCD, who I just think is a powerhouse. Satter is a renowned and well-known eating and feeding expert. She is a registered dietician and therapist.

As her website says, “She emphasizes competency rather than deficiency: providing rather than depriving: and trust rather than control.”

Satter’s work helps to clear up all the confusion and discomfort surrounding food, surrounding such questions as “How do I feed myself?” or “How do I feed my family?”

I love Satter’s definition of normal eating:

Normal eating is going to the table hungry and eating until you are satisfied. It is being able to choose food you like and eat it and truly get enough of it -not just stop eating because you think you should. Normal eating is being able to give some thought to your food selection so you get nutritious food, but not being so wary and restrictive that you miss out on enjoyable food. Normal eating is giving yourself permission to eat sometimes because you are happy, sad or bored, or just because it feels good. Normal eating is mostly three meals a day, or four or five, or it can be choosing to munch along the way. It is leaving some cookies on the plate because you know you can have some again tomorrow, or it is eating more now because they taste so wonderful. Normal eating is overeating at times, feeling stuffed and uncomfortable. And it can be undereating at times and wishing you had more. Normal eating is trusting your body to make up for your mistakes in eating. Normal eating takes up some of your time and attention, but keeps its place as only one important area of your life.

In short, normal eating is flexible. It varies in response to your hunger, your schedule, your proximity to food and your feelings.*

When I was deeply entrenched in the diet mentality, I worried about enjoying eating. I felt ashamed that I liked to eat, and wished that food was just neutral to me. But enjoying food, as Satter writes on her website, is healthy. (I think we know this intuitively, but our warped culture helps us forget.)

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.*

In her practice, Satter found that clients who dieted didn’t just eat less nutritionally, but the dieting negatively impacted their whole lives. She writes:

…I consistently found prescriptive dietary interventions to undermine my patients’ foodways, to destroy their ability to intuitively regulate food intake, to worsen their nutritional status and to spoil their attitudes about eating. Because eating is so central to life, my patients were not only demoralized about eating, they were demoralized overall.*

This inspired her to develop the Satter Eating Competence Model (ecSatter), which consists of four components:

  • Context: Take time to eat, and provide yourself with rewarding meals and snacks at regular and reliable times.
  • Attitude: Cultivate positive attitudes about eating and about food. Emphasize providing rather than depriving; seeking food rather than avoiding it.
  • Food acceptance: Enjoy your eating, eat foods you like, and let yourself be comfortable with and relaxed about what you eat. Enjoying eating supports the natural inclination to seek variety, the keystone of healthful food selection.
  • Internal regulation: Pay attention to your sensations of hunger and fullness to determine how much to eat. Go to the table hungry, eat until you feel satisfied, and then stop, knowing another meal or snack is coming soon when you can do it again.*

Here are other articles on Satter’s site that you might be interested in:

Also, check out my interviews with feeding expert Dr. Katja Rowell, M.D., which are also eye-opening: part 1, part 2 and part 3.


* Copyright © 2011 by Ellyn Satter. Published at For more eating competently (and for research backing up this advice), see Ellyn Satter’s Secrets of Feeding a Healthy Family: How to Eat, How to Raise Good Eaters, How to Cook, Kelcy Press, 2008. Also see to purchase books and to review other resources.

What Is Healthy Eating?

Margarita Tartakovsky, MS

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APA Reference
Tartakovsky, M. (2012). What Is Healthy Eating?. Psych Central. Retrieved on November 20, 2018, from


Last updated: 20 Jan 2012
Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 20 Jan 2012
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