Focusing on what to eat before giving care and attention to how you eat is like deciding what furniture to put in a house that hasn’t even been built. Here are three approaches to breaking this pattern — and getting more enjoyment out of food.

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On Nutrition

When it comes to eating, many people put the cart before the horse: They focus on what to eat before giving care and attention to how they eat. It’s like deciding what furniture to put in a house that hasn’t been built.

And it’s a pattern I see time and time again. Someone is fixated on improving their nutrition because they want to lose weight, or are worried about their cholesterol or blood sugar, but it turns out they’re also skipping meals, grazing mindlessly or locked in a chronic cycle of yo-yo dieting.

To get to a place where you love your food but it also loves you back — meeting your body’s need for fuel and your need for satisfaction — requires less focus on the what and more on the how. That may seem counterintuitive in today’s dieting culture, but learning to listen to and trust the body’s wisdom about what it needs? That’s what should be intuitive. Fortunately, there are three excellent frameworks for helping to improve the “how,” and your overall relationship with food: eating competence, intuitive eating and mindful eating.

Eating competence

The brainchild of registered dietitian Ellyn Satter, RD, MS, LCSW, eating competence is outlined in her book “Secrets of Feeding a Healthy Family: How to Eat, How to Raise Good Eaters, How to Cook” and on her website, www.ellynsatterinstitute.org. When I talked with Satter recently, I asked her to name the biggest misconception people have about eating competence. “That it’s about eating the right food and avoiding the wrong food,” she said. “They get into the ‘good food, bad food’ right away.”

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Much like Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, Satter has a hierarchy of food needs. “The bottom line for all of us is getting enough to eat. That’s an issue for people who live with food insecurity along with those who are chronically on a weight-reduction diet.” Once someone has enough to eat, she said, they can move up the hierarchy to making sure they have enough enjoyable food. “You have to be able to provide yourself with that foundation. Once you have enough food you enjoy and you’re good at providing yourself with that, then you’re going to do better at planning ahead.” So, not playing catch-as-catch-can with whatever’s convenient or available.

“After they do that, people typically get kind of picky. Eventually they get to the point where they take interest in unfamiliar foods,” she said, which helps build a more varied and nutritious diet. Accordingly, research shows that competent eaters have higher-quality diets, in part because not forcing yourself to eat fruits and vegetables will allow them to become foods you eat for pleasure. “People eat nutritious food because they enjoy it, not because they have to. The bedrock of eating competence is that you enjoy eating and feel good about it.”

Intuitive eating

The origins of intuitive eating began in the 1980s and were formalized in 1995, when registered dietitians Evelyn Tribole, MS, RD, and Elyse Resch, MS, RDN, published the first edition of their book, “Intuitive Eating.” They published a companion workbook in 2017. The 10 principles of intuitive eating include rejecting the diet mentality, honoring your hunger, respecting your fullness, making peace with food, discovering satisfaction and respecting your body. Research has shown that intuitive eaters have better psychological well-being and are more likely to engage in health-promoting habits. They also have better body image and are less likely to develop an eating disorder.

As with Satter’s eating-competence model, many people try to turn intuitive eating into a rules-based “hunger-fullness diet.” While intuitive eating involves learning to tune in to — and respect — hunger and fullness cues, the goal is to help you nourish yourself and be satisfied by your food. Nutrition is part of intuitive eating, but Tribole and Resch save the “honor your health with gentle nutrition” principle for last, because, frankly, many people already obsess over nutrition, and need to focus on relearning to trust their bodies first.

What is gentle nutrition? “Make food choices that honor your health and taste buds while making you feel well. Remember that you don’t have to eat a perfect diet to be healthy. You will not suddenly get a nutrient deficiency or gain weight from one snack, one meal, or one day of eating. It’s what you eat consistently over time that matters; progress not perfection is what counts.” Learn more at www.intuitiveeating.org.

Mindful eating

Mindfulness and mindful eating are components of both eating competence and intuitive eating, but as a stand-alone practice, mindful eating is more nebulous. The term “mindful eating” is tossed around frequently, but interpretations vary widely. The Center for Mindful Eating (TCME), which offers a wealth of resources at www.thecenterformindfuleating.org, defines mindful eating as:

Allowing yourself to become aware of the positive and nurturing opportunities that are available through food selection and preparation by respecting your own inner wisdom.

Using all your senses in choosing to eat food that is both satisfying to you and nourishing to your body.

Acknowledging responses to food (likes, dislikes or indifference) without judgment.

Becoming aware of physical hunger and satiety cues to guide your decisions to begin and end eating.

Unfortunately, like eating competence and intuitive eating, many people try to turn mindful eating into a diet, and it’s even been co-opted by some diet companies, including Weight Watchers. Indeed, much of the research on mindful eating has, unfortunately, been weight-loss-focused, which goes against the spirit of mindfulness. If you want to explore mindful eating on your own, I recommend “Eat What You Love, Love What You Eat,” by Michelle May, MD, and “Well Nourished” by Andrea Lieberstein, MPH, RDN.

Finally, while there are many excellent DIY resources for each of these methods, you may benefit from working individually with a registered dietitian or therapist who is trained in them.