One thing I find really ironic about my dieting/disordered eating days is how much my motivation stemmed from the pursuit of perfection. Yet somehow, while trying to eat the "best" I could, I stopped being a competent eater. I felt crazy around food, chose foods I hated but thought were good for me, and denied myself foods only to end up overeating them later.
If that sounds familiar, you're not alone. The path to intuitive eating can be complicated and it's okay to ask for help. If you're wondering about your own eating habits, here's 3 signs you're a competent eater:
1 | You don’t make decisions based on the nutritional value of food.
I.e., you don’t let the protein, fat, carb, calorie, or miccronutrient content of food dictate your choices. Gentle nutrition is a useful tool (and one of the last principles of intuitive eating, so it’s important to tackle food freedom first) that helps use very simple and flexible guidelines to help you feel good, body and soul. So maybe a salad would feel great for your digestion, but ice cream would also help satisfy a craving and provide different flavors/temperatures to your meal. Or maybe you’re craving a big fruit salad for breakfast and know that it may not keep you full for long, so you also have scrambled eggs. We don’t have to worry about the nutritional minutae - instead, we can take it meal-by-meal and let balance find us.
Other factors you consider include:
If the food will be satisfying
If it’s enough/too little
If it will taste good
If it fits your budget or schedule
How the food will feel in your body
Whether you’ll feel deprived if you don’t eat that food
This isn’t at all to say that you eat with disregard to your health - instead, it means you understand that your mental and emotional health surrounding food are just as important as physical health, and you allow all the factors to come into play. You eat while keeping in mind what will satisfy all your needs in the best way you can.
2 | You enjoy food and feel calm around it
If there’s one thing that will make you feel crazy around food, it’s restricting. Restricting food can build up cravings and create more and more anxiety around food decisions. Competent eaters can make calm decisions around food and can be around all foods without becoming preoccupied with them.
One helpful practice for starting to find food freedom is scheduling one of your fear/anxiety foods. So if ice cream or salad or fruit is a trigger for those thoughts, schedule a time to eat it once a day for a week or two. Create calm experiences around it by eating without distractions or asking a friend to join you, and create a plan for if you have anxiety after eating (like going shopping after a meal or seeing a movie).
If you’re in eating disorder recovery or experiencing very strong anxiety around food, this practice may not be a good starting place for you. Please know that there is healing for you and you can do this with help. I’m not currently taking clients, but email me here if you need help finding a professional to support you.
3 | You practice flexibility and understanding with yourself
Not every eating experience can or will turn out the exact way you plan. Even the most competent and intuitive eaters sometimes eat to an uncomfortable point or walk away from a meal dissatisfied in some way. Life happens! Sometimes the food you order isn’t what you expected, or it’s way better than you expected so you need a lot to be satisfied.
The difference between an extra-full eating experience when you’re in diet culture vs. an intuitive eating environment is the conversation you have with yourself about it. So instead of putting yourself down about the amount you eat, can you explore what led you there? Maybe your food tasted great or maybe you were tuned into something else.
Either way, know that your body will survive the situation and you are learning things you can bring into your next eating experiences. Even with that new knowledge, sometimes things don’t go as planned and that’s okay.
How do you define a competent eater? Are there areas you’re looking to build flexibility around your eating?