In the last two posts (#1 and #2) about Secrets of Feeding a Healthy Family by Ellyn Satter, I pointed out problems and inconsistencies I perceived in the book. Now I want to write more about things I found helpful or that I particularly liked.
The book has an odd structure. From the title, you might guess that it's mainly about how to feed children. But that's only what the middle section of the book is about. The subtitle is a little more descriptive: How to Eat, How to Raise Good Eaters, How to Cook.
I suspect with this title, the book is trying to set a trap. Parents will pick the book up hoping that it will help them get their picky eaters to eat, or maybe hoping that they can curtail a junk-food habit. And then, perhaps, they will discover that part of the problem is that they (the grownups) have unresolved food issues -- maybe even eating disorders -- themselves, and that before they can teach good food-acceptance and food-choosing skills to their children, they will have to work on their own issues.
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That first part -- "How to Eat" -- is aimed at people who really don't know how to feed themselves, or who have such awful emotional issues around eating that they do not possess the skills to eat normally, or who suffer from eating disorders. It's not a comprehensively long section, but I think it contains some good stuff.
As I wrote before, Satter comes from the "accept your body at the weight it is" school of weight-writers, and one of her chapter titles is "Eat as much as you want." I do not share the fatalistic "you can't lose weight and you shouldn't try" attitude, and I think "Eat as much as you want" is correct only as long as your "want" is in conformity with the requirements of your body, duties, and state in life. But we have to have our priorities right, and changing one thing at a time is often best; and if you lack the most basic skills of feeding yourself, or suffer from a clinical eating disorder, or experience terrible emotional reactions to food and eating -- as, apparently, do many of the people that Satter works with -- then probably you need to put healing first, and shelve concerns about weight or even the advanced topic of gluttony until you've mastered simply feeding yourself.
Indeed, I suspect that Satter's focus comes from being used to working with people whose weight problem is not their biggest problem, and for whom over- or under-eating is a symptom of an underlying disorder. Just to give you some perspective: Her anecdotes include
- a woman who required weeks of therapy to muster the courage to taste a strawberry
- a man who felt guilty about consuming a single bite of anything that wasn't bland,
- and a woman who thought it was obscene that her seven-month-old liked eating.
For these folks, worrying about weight or gluttony would be counterproductive.
Still, for those of us who aren't quite so far gone, and who understand that "acknowledging a moral fault" isn't the same thing as "descending into a spiral of negative emotions and self-hatred," speaking of "gluttony" can be helpful. In myself I found that gluttony, as a moral fault, was inextricably bound up with physical and psychological problems. Physically, I had to reconnect with my sensations of hunger and satiety, as Satter recommends; once I'd done so I was less enslaved by gluttony, but even to take that first step required resisting gluttonous impulses -- that first step, in other words, was a moral victory. And preceding that was a desire to be freed from the impulse-pleasure cycle, a desire that can only have been put in my heart by God. Psychologically, I continue to struggle with the impulses of bulimia; I have the most success when I acknowledge a spiritual and moral component to that struggle. We should never be surprised that the mind, the body, and the will are entangled, and that all three need to be taken together as a united whole.
To that end, Satter's book contains tools and ideas that can help someone who's trying to release herself from the hold of gluttony. Here are some that I find especially powerful:
- The idea that "eating competence" can be broken down into a set of discrete skills which can be individually learned.
- The idea that food needs fall into a hierarchy, and that more-fundamental needs should take priority over less-fundamental ones.
- A good description of "normal eating."
- Tips for being satisfied at meals.
- The idea that "food acceptance" (the opposite of pickiness) can be broken down into a set of discrete skills which can be individually learned.
- A technique for learning to recognize the signals of hunger and satiety.
- Tips for learning to eat at meals (instead of grazing) and for organizing successful family meals.
- A philosophy for dividing responsibility for children's nutrition between the parent and the child at various ages.
All of these are good, and I'll write more about them in subsequent posts.