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  • Dina Cohen

How to Not Diet

When I ask clients to consider what their eating might look like if they weren’t dieting, some of them describe nightmarish visions of eating an entire chocolate cake without coming up for air. “I’ll have no control and I’ll never stop eating.” Ironically, this is far more likely to happen when someone is still stuck in the diet cycle. The opposite of dieting isn’t binge eating. Experiencing a loss of control around food is actually part of the same diet package. The opposite of dieting is having a healthy relationship with food.

Giving up dieting does not mean being careless about your eating. Like all important things in life, eating deserves time and consideration. Especially in the current food environment, where the selection is overwhelming and the opportunities for consumption are so plentiful, it’s worthwhile to be smart about your eating. But that does not translate into being obsessed. The key is finding a way to nourish yourself well so that you can go on with the business of living instead of making your life revolve around food. The process is different for everyone, but several helpful models exist to help provide a framework for reclaiming a healthy lifestyle.

One of these is the Satter Eating Competence Model (ecSatter), developed by dietitian Ellyn Satter. She is known for saying, “When the joy goes out of eating, nutrition suffers.” She developed her model after 30 years in clinical practice. Ellyn writes,

In that practice, I consistently found that giving people diets - prescriptions to eat certain foods in certain amounts at certain times - made people miserable. Those diets undermined my patients' relaxed and positive relationship with food, destroyed their ability to intuitively eat as much as they needed, worsened their nutritional status, and spoiled their social engagements. They felt bad if they ate, and felt worse when they missed out on enjoyable food. Because eating is so central to life, my patients were not only demoralized about eating, they were demoralized in general. It was glaringly obvious that the harm far outweighed the benefit, so I changed my ways. Rather than trying to control or sidetrack my patients' natural tendencies to regularly provide themselves with ample and enjoyable food, I learned to build on those tendencies by emphasizing permission and discipline: The permission to choose enjoyable food and eat it in satisfying amounts. The discipline to have regular and reliable meals and snacks and to pay attention when eating them.” [1]

Sound too good to be true? Research demonstrates that people with higher eating competence scores do better nutritionally, have healthier body weights, better lab results, and are healthier emotionally and socially[2] [3]. The four elements of eating competence are context, attitude, food acceptance, and internal regulation. Essentially, you might want to:

1. Plan ahead for meals and snacks. You do what it takes to ensure you have healthy meals and snacks available. You make your choices with nutrition in mind, but you don’t consider only nutrition when planning your menus - taste is a strong priority as well. You establish regular meal times and allow yourself time to eat. Your eating is not haphazard.

2. Have a positive attitude toward food and eating. Your thoughts about food aren’t dominated by anxiety or guilt. Your focus is on providing rather than depriving.

3. Be relaxed around food. You enjoy your meals and snacks and are pretty relaxed about your food in general. You eat a variety of foods. You aren’t afraid to try new things and are okay with eating something that isn’t your favorite food or isn’t particularly “healthy” if the situation calls for it.

4. Let your body guide you. You know what it feels like to be hungry and full and can arrive at meals hungry and eat until you are comfortably satisfied. (The chocolate cake nightmare doesn’t come true because when you know that delicious food is permanently legal, you don’t feel the need to eat it past the point of fullness.)

Ellyn is my hero for her extensive research resulting in effective guidelines for raising healthy eaters. I highly recommend her books, which include Secrets of Feeding a Healthy Family, Child of Mine: Feeding with Love and Good Sense, and Your Child’s Weight: Helping Without Harming. I use her evidence-based recommendations in my practice and owe her a huge debt of gratitude for her contribution to the dietetics world.

Another book I love is called Intuitive Eating, written by dietitians Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch. It provides very detailed information about how to get in touch with your hunger and fullness as well as a host of other tips to help you change your thoughts about food and exercise and become a healthy non-dieter.

Relating to food in a positive and relaxed way comes naturally to some people, particularly those who grew up with caretakers who provided food reliably and with joy. If you did not have that opportunity, or if you have a history of dieting, this can seem foreign - even impossible. However, by learning more about the various alternatives and, if necessary, getting professional support, it is possible to change your eating attitudes and behaviors and relate to food in a healthier way. Un-dieting can not only take a boatload of stress out of your life, it will help you establish a solid foundation of wellness for your family.


[1] Satter, E. (2016). Eating Competence. Accessed January 22, 2017.

[2] Lohse B, Satter E, Horacek T, Gebreselassie T, Oakland MJ. Measuring Eating Competence: Psychometric properties and validity of the ecSatter Inventory. J Nutr Educ Behav Suppl. 2007;39:S154-S166.

[3] Psota T, Lohse B, West S. Associations between eating competence and cardiovascular disease biomarkers . J Nutr Educ Behav Suppl. 2007; 39:S171-S178.

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