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Using Successive Approximation to Become a “Normal” Eater

  • Eating

After a client used the term “successive approximation,” I asked her what it meant. She explained it, and I thought how well it could be applied to becoming a “normal” eater.

According to blogger Darcie Nolan in “Successive Approximation: Steps Toward Behavioral Change (5/22/14,, “successive approximation is a series of rewards that provide positive reinforcement for behavior changes that are successive steps towards the final desired behavior. In successive approximation” which we’ll call SA, “each successive step towards the desired behavior is identified and rewarded. The series of rewards for different steps of the behavior increases the likelihood that the steps will be taken again and that they will lead to the desired end result being fulfilled.”

Here’s an example from Nolan’s blog using SA to train a puppy to play fetch. “The first step would be reinforcing the positive behavior of the normally uninterested puppy of turning towards the ball or stick that was thrown. As the puppy learns to do this each time the ball or stick is thrown, the owner would then move to positively reinforcing any movement towards the ball or stick by the puppy. As the puppy learns to go towards the item, the owner would then reinforce touching the ball or stick or interacting with it in some way. As each step is learned, the owner stops reinforcing the previous steps. This trains the puppy to perform the steps towards the final desired behavior one by one. When the puppy is finally placing the ball or stick in its mouth, it would be rewarded. That reward would stop when it was time to reward picking up the item and beginning to carry it back to the owner.”

Granted that we are not puppies, but here’s a way to mentally reward yourself each time you make a positive move toward, say, stopping eating when you’re full or satisfied. Your succession of rewards might go like this: step #1, when you think you’re no longer hungry or the food you’re eating doesn’t taste quite as good as it did when you began eating it, give yourself praise. Step #2 might be putting down your utensils or the food and rewarding yourself with a cheer. Step #3 might be pushing away your plate or putting aside leftover food and again praising yourself. And Step #4 might be moving on to your next activity and giving yourself a high five in the mirror.

The client who introduced me to SA, told me, “It’s how my mind worked when approaching “normal” eating, doing it one step at a time and slowly gaining confidence with the new skill. There was added confidence when I goofed up my eating and found I didn’t have to start all over at step #1 again. I could often start back at step 3, so I felt some accomplishment with my skill development.”

If you break down the process of eating, you’ll pay more attention to each step and can give yourself small rewards along the way. Try practicing this SA technique and see if it works for you.