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Overcoming Fear of Foods

Overcoming Fear of Foods

By Rebeca Hernández, MSc, RD

Ellyn Satter Institute Faculty


About 5 years ago I started working at becoming a Competent Eater.

The most important thing I learned to do, though, was to normalize my relationship with food — all food, and, it is such a relief! Food no longer calls to me from the kitchen, in fact, I don’t think a whole lot about food unless I’m meal planning or hungry for my supper.

I knew that I had achieved what previously had seemed impossible the day I found a forgotten package of brownies in the freezer. They were so stale and freezer burnt that they were inedible and I had to throw them out! I’d never had brownies last long enough to become freezer burnt and stale. Who knew?”

This is Rose’s story, she found peace with her fear foods, after 45 years of struggling with food and her body.

As a therapist, knowing that you can guide someone like Rose to such an epiphany, that brownies can be forgotten and go stale, is incredibly moving and rewarding.

Why is it so important to guide them to this peace?

Because only with peace, someone can be a competent eater, eat normally, and truly be nourished.

If you are unfamiliar with the model of Eating Competence ( ecSatter) that Rose worked with, dietitian and family therapist Ellyn Satter developed it after 30 years of dietetics and psychotherapy practice. She used this model to describe a group of behaviors and attitudes that she found “work”. She developed and validated the ecSI 2.0 inventory to measure these characteristics. There are now more than 30 peer reviewed studies that have consistently found that “adults who are eating competent are healthier medically, physically, and even emotionally and are more consistent about taking care of themselves with food, despite the fact that the principles of eating competence say nothing about what or how much to eat” (1).

As a matter of fact, Rose notes that becoming eating competent had very positive effects on her health:

“Making peace with food has had some very positive health effects. I’ve had my blood pressure medication cut in half, my cholesterol medication cut in half, and I’ve gone from using 140 units of long acting insulin a day to using 60 units a day — all because I learned to trust that my body knows what it needs and my job is to provide it with what it wants, both veggies and chocolate…”

The cornerstone to being a competent eater is trust, as Rose explains, especially the scary notion of trusting your appetite, trusting that your body can want both “veggies and chocolate.”

Appetite is the drive, the desire. Merriam-Webster dictionary defines appetite as “any of the instinctive desires necessary to keep up organic life; especially: the desire to eat.”I love this definition. Appetite works for us, not against us as we fear.

Most of the fear of certain foods comes from the fear of our appetite. We fear that we are bottomless pits, that if we allow ourselves to eat the foods we enjoy, we will never stop.

Nothing can be further from the truth. Even though it is compelling, appetite can be satisfied. But to satisfy it, you must allow yourself to eat the food you enjoy in peace.

When you honor your appetite instead of going against it, you truly can find your stopping point: You can forget the brownies in the freezer!

As Ellyn Satter emphasizes in her books and trainings, “With permission comes control”, real control, not the false control of fear or restriction. When you give yourself permission to eat the food you love, you don’t binge.

You don’t binge because of lack of will power. Instead, you binge when you have broiled chicken and lettuce for lunch and skipped the buttered potatoes because they were too fattening. By 4 pm you binge on cookies, not because of a lack of will power, but because your desire, your appetite, was not satisfied.

How do you guide your clients in trusting their appetite again?

The power of the How to Eat process, developed by Ellyn Satter, is that it is experientialand not a dictated process with rules and strict steps to follow.

It is only through their own experience that your clients can truly internalize change.

They learn to trust themselves because they find their own answers. They stop being fearful of foods, because they find by themselves that their appetite can be satisfied.

As a therapist, you guide them through 3 important steps that are reinforced through their journey:

  • First and most importantly, you begin by having them give themselves permission to eat. This means, reassuring them that it is ok to eat, and it is ok to have rewarding food at each meal.
  • The second important step is having themfeed themselves faithfully. As Ellyn Satter has described it, this is key to being a competent eater.

This means providing themselves with regular meals and snacks if they need them, so they can be confident of getting fed, and to eat often enough so they don’t get famished. When they are famished, they can’t tune into themselves or their meal, and it is hard to find the meal rewarding.

  • The third step is guiding them to relax and tune in before each meal, to help them learn and grow from their own experience with food. With awareness comes choice. Reconnecting with themselves and their food allows them to be aware of their feelings, and find their own answers as to what they want to do to satisfy their appetite and where they want to take their relationship with food.

As Ellyn Satter explains in her book, Secrets of Feeding a Healthy Family, “after weeks of going through the motions of being deliberate, relaxed, and tuned in with eating, the kaleidoscope shifts. The individual’s whole experience of eating and of himself in relation to food realigns.” (2)

For most people, that moment comes when they discover they can trust their appetite, as Ellyn notes on her story of Wesley, one of her clients she mentions in her book:

“Gradually, he sorted out his hunger from his appetite, his sensation of satiety from his experience of being stuffed. As he did, he discovered that his drab food was interfering with his food regulation. Fearing that good-tasting food would send him out of control, Wesley had asked his wife to cook only the most uninteresting food with few seasonings and little or no fat. But rather than keeping him from overeating, the drab food made him overeat. Because the food didn’t satisfy his appetite, he ate and ate and still didn’t feel like stopping. To his delight, Wesley discovered that good-tasting food let him feel like stopping. He could get satisfied and stop eating, not because he thought he should, but because he genuinely felt he had had enough.”(2)

This is the beauty of coaching your clients through this process. You know you made a difference. Your clients’ realizations and changes come from their experience of tuning into their food experiences.

If you want to learn more on how to apply this powerful process to help your clients transform their relationship with food for good, you can visit the Ellyn Satter’s Institute Website. The next Vision Training Workshop is March 2019:


Eating attitudes: You are positive about eating and about food. You like to eat and, not only that, you feel comfortable with your enjoyment of eating.

Food acceptance attitudes and skills: You are comfortable with the foods you like, you are flexible about the foods you choose, you are interested in new foods, and you have ways of learning to like them. You can be courteous but firm about turning down food you don’t want to eat (to say yes, you have to be able to say no). But keep in mind that sometimes you just have to get fed regardless of your preferences. When that happens, you can politely tolerate and even eat food that you don’t particularly enjoy.

Internal regulation attitudes and skills: You tune in on and trust your internal regulators of hunger and appetite as well as your satiety—your feelings of fullness, satisfaction, and genuine readiness to stop eating—to know how much to eat. Moreover, you are comfortable with eating enough. You trust your body to know how much it needs to weigh and are able to reject outside pressure—whether it is medical oraesthetic—to strive for a body weight other than the one that is right for you.

Contextual attitudes and skills: You take feeding yourself seriously, plan ahead for it, know how to prepare food, and generally see to it that you have regular meals and snacks. You make it a point to put together meals with foods that you enjoy. At the same time, you can pay attention to basic nutritional principles to guide your planning without taking the pleasure and reward out of eating.

About the author:

Rebeca Hernández is part of the Faculty of the Ellyn Satter Institute. She is  a licensed nutritionist/dietitian (RDN, LD) with a master’s in Eating Disorders from Universidad Europea de Madrid.  Rebeca works and lives in San José, Costa Rica. Having experienced first-hand Ellyn Satter’s message of “when the joy goes out of eating nutrition suffers,” she has been focused in helping adult and children, find this joy in eating and life. She is most passionate about working one-on-one, so her work is focused on private counseling, based on the Satter Feeding Dynamics and Eating Competence models.  She has developed special programs for parents in Costa Rica, working with psychologists who share the vision of feeding with love and respect. Besides her private practice, she delivers regular workshops, and is starting an intensive program for counseling parents in recovering their joy of eating and feeding.


(1) Lohse, B., Satter, E., Horacek, T., Gebreselassie, T., & Oakland, M. J. (2007). Measuring Eating Competence: Psychometric Properties and Validity of the ecSatter Inventory. Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior, 39(5), S154-S166. doi:10.1016/j.jneb.2007.04.371

(2) Satter, E. (2008). Secrets of feeding a healthy family: How to eat, how to raise good eaters, how to cook (2ndedition). Madison, WI: Kelcy Press,p.97.



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