Sunday, January 24, 2021

What’s in a Name? Mindful Eating vs Intuitive Eating vs Competent Eating

Mindfully eating a strawberryIs there a real difference between mindful eating, intuitive eating or any other name internally-regulated eating goes by these days?  It’s an important question in a time when so many people are trying to recover from decades of diet thinking that led them to disordered eating, to the real detriment of their health and happiness.

It’s also a frequent question that I encounter and one that recently came up again via Ellyn Satter, RD, author of the definition of normal eating that we have used for years at Green Mountain to help women understand how eating according to diet rules differs so radically from true healthy eating. Satter also developed the Satter Eating Competence Model (ecSatter), which has been tested and found effective to help people do better “nutritionally, medically, emotionally and socially.”  You can read what she has to say here about the question.

How Structure Can Fit into Internally-Regulated Eating

Satter makes some important distinctions that I think are valuable to understand by anyone who is working to help themselves or someone else move away from disordered eating.

One of those is how structure fits into internally-regulated eating.  The ecSatter model tells us to “have structured meals (and snacks) with enjoyable foods, and go to the table hungry (but not famished) and eat in a tuned-in fashion until you are satisfied. Then stop, reassuring yourself that another opportunity to eat is coming soon and you can do it again.”

I’m not exactly sure how structured meals are defined in Satter’s model but at Green Mountain, we define it as regular, balanced meals.  To us,

  • Regular means eating every 3-5 hours, starting with breakfast.  This works because so many of the women we work with don’t recognize when they’re hungry and when they’re not.
  • Balance means eating meals that feature foods that contain protein, fat and carbohydrate.  We’ve used the Plate Model for Healthy Eating since the 90s, primarily because it gives an image that someone can easily carry around in their heads, to help them make decisions about what to eat.  If you’re not eating off a plate, you can still choose those foods, e.g., a sandwich with a protein food and vegetables.

We combine that with a strong message to eat what you want.  Then we work to help women understand how to think about that term is a broader way, one that supports our well-being instead of taking us further down the road of disordered eating.

How Structure Can Serve You Well

Other approaches to internally-regulated eating reject the necessity of structure, believing that it imposes a form of restriction.  But over the 40 years we’ve been working in this area, structure has always been an important part of our approach.  It has served the women who come to Green Mountain well by giving them a foundation of good nutrition that makes them feel well and helps their bodies deliver accurate signals about what, when and how much they truly want to eat.  Combining that with a clear message to eat what you want removes restriction about what, when and how much to eat, which also contributes to clear thinking about what it is we really want.

We’ve always called our approach mindful eating, but Satter makes a good argument about the differences between all the terms used for internally-regulated eating.  In the interest of effectiveness, this is certainly something I’m going to think a lot more about.

What do you think?  Does it matter what name you use for internally-regulated eating, as long as the focus is on using our bodies’ cues to guide our eating?


2 Responses to “What’s in a Name? Mindful Eating vs Intuitive Eating vs Competent Eating”
  1. Great article Marsha. As an overeating recovery therapist and coach, I think all the labels truly get at the same point–to learn to internally regulate eating and pay attention to our signals. And, like you, I do believe that a certain amount of structure, as well as choosing, as often as possible, unprocessed whole foods, helps our bodies deliver accurate signals that we can learn to trust. If we’re not eating regularly enough, or are routinely choosing unhealthy comfort foods that imbalance our brain and body chemistry, it will be difficult to produce accurate signals we can rely on. Many emotional eaters have difficulty paying attention to body signals because of an exaggerated desire for soothing, comfort and pleasure. This is where self-care skills, such as self-soothing, reframing self-defeating thoughts, and grieving come in. I cover these skills, and more, in my new book The Emotional Eater’s Repair Manual: A Practical Mind,Body,Spirit Guide for Putting and End to Overeating and Dieting. For more information, please visit


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