There’s a good reason gentle nutrition is the last principle of intuitive eating. Without doing some work to heal your relationship with food first, gentle nutrition can easily become a diet. But sometimes it can feel like a bit of a mystery. This post explores how to practice gentle nutrition in intuitive eating without it becoming a diet.
Since it is National Nutrition Month, I thought it might be nice to actually talk nutrition, since, you know, I am a dietitian and all.
The 10th principle of Intuitive Eating is "honor your health with gentle nutrition." Expanding on the principle, the book reads:
"Make food choices that honor your health and taste buds while making you feel well. Remember that you do not have to eat perfectly 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."
One of the biggest misconceptions about Intuitive Eating is that it's just eat what you want, or that Intuitive Eating is somehow anti-nutrition. That couldn't be further from the truth. Moving away from the scale and rigid diet rules is one of the most pro-health, pro-nutrition things you can do. It creates mental space and a positive relationship with food that allows for you to adopt health-promoting habits rooted in self care, in a way that's actually sustainable.
The big difference with how nutrition is approached in Intuitive Eating vs. traditional approaches to nutrition is that with Intuitive Eating, nutrition comes last - that's why it's the last principle in the book! We have to do work healing your relationship with food first. Once you've ditched the diet mentality and squashed the food police, you'll be able to take nutrition into consideration when making decisions about food and have that decision come from self care, not restriction. You’ll be able to engage with nutrition in a way that actually improves your health.
The other difference is the emphasis on the word gentle. Good nutrition isn't rigid, restrictive, or complicated. It's the little things that really make a difference when it comes to health.
What does gentle nutrition look like?
Well, it’s different for everyone! You get to decide what gentle nutrition looks like for you, including to what degree you’d like to engage with nutrition, if at all! Health is a complex, nuanced thing, and it is so much more than food and fitness. Mental health is health too, and sometimes focussing on mental health means putting nutrition on the back burner. What looks like gentle nutrition for one person could be completely different for another. Here’s examples of what gentle nutrition could look like:
Someone who works multiple jobs or lacks food prep skills trying to add vegetables to frozen and boxed convenience meals.
Intentionally cooking most your meals at home using fresh, whole ingredients.
Following a gluten free diet for celiac disease.
Following a vegan or kosher diet for ethical/religious beliefs.
Aiming to eat a Mediterranean or anti-inflammatory meal pattern to help manage symptoms of a health condition.
Following a meal plan/guidelines and regularly including challenge foods in eating disorder recovery.
Not really thinking about nutrition at all, but trying to include some vegetables or fruit at dinner when you think about it!
There’s no moral imperative to prioritize nutrition. Obviously, being a dietitian and all, nutrition is something I care about and believe in. And through my work and activism, I hope to make it accessible to more people, no matter their barriers. But I also know other people’s values and priorities don’t need to dictate yours. So if you’re reading this and feeling like engaging in nutrition is a “should,” please know that it’s your choice - no matter your size. Society often glorifies and even sexualizes thin people eating “unhealthy” food (think Gilmore Girls or that Paris Hilton Carl’s Jr. commercial), and shames larger bodied people for doing the same. But you should not have to prove yourself by eating only healthy food.
How to Practice Gentle Nutrition in Intuitive Eating:
Focus on the big picture instead of individual food choices. Individual food choices make very little difference when it comes to health - I don’t think you can look back to that fast food bacon cheeseburger and fries you had in 2005 and say THAT was the meal that ruined it all! So I don’t think that meal or snack you’re stressing about right now is going to make a big difference in the context of your life.
If you're thinking about ways to improve the quality of your diet, it's worth thinking about big picture patterns, not obsessing over single meals or social eating situations. So for example, if you go out to lunch most days at work, is there a way you could pack a quick and easy lunch with some produce in it a few times a week? If you drink a lot of sugar sweetened beverages, is there a way you could incorporate more low sugar beverages, like water or flavored seltzer? If you eat a lot of toast or sandwiches, is there a whole grain bread that you enjoy and wouldn't mind switching to? If you normally get take out pizza after a busy night at work, could you keep some healthier frozen options on hand? Those shifts in the pattern of your eating make much more of a difference!
Focus on addition, not subtraction.
Most diet advice centers on restriction - ways to eat less, not eat/limit certain foods, "healthy" food swaps. With intuitive eating, all foods fit, and all foods are morally equivalent, but of course, some foods are more nutrient-dense than others. Like, kale is more nutritious than a coke. It just is. Now, that doesn't mean that just because kale is more nutritious, that it's always the healthy choice. If your blood sugar is low or you are dehydrated and feeling dizzy or you about to do something very physically active, please drink the coke. In those situations, soda is most definitely the healthiest choice. Also, just because a food is more nutritious, that doesn't mean that's the only thing we need to eat. Kale might be packed with nutrients, but clearly a diet of only kale is not healthy. Remember, nutrition and health are NOT the same thing.
With adding in, instead of focusing on restriction, the focus is on including more nutrient-dense foods. Just think addition, not subtraction. Some examples:
How can you include fatty fish more frequently? - keep frozen salmon filets in the freezer, keep canned wild salmon and tuna on hand for a snack, experiment with new fish recipes
How can you include more leafy greens? - scramble spinach into your morning eggs, pack a lunchtime grain bowl over a bed of greens, mix steamed kale into your spaghetti recipe
How can you include more whole grains? - switch your morning English muffin to whole grain, experiment with new whole grains in your cooking, like quinoa, teff or farro; pack whole grain crackers to pair with hummus for a snack
There's a reason humans are hardwired to crave variety - it's because eating a wide variety of food helps ensure we're getting adequate nutrition. Different foods contain different nutrients, so when we eat lots of different foods (not just a wide array of fruits and vegetables, but a wide array of proteins, fats, nuts and seeds, and carbohydrate sources) it protects against nutrient deficiency, while ensuring nutritional adequacy, and giving us plenty of disease-fighting phytonutrients.
Pay attention to what food that feels good.
Considering how food makes you feel may help you make more nutritious choices on the whole. That doesn't mean you have to always choose the food that makes you feel good - choosing food that makes you feel bleh does not conflict with intuitive eating. But tuning in to how different foods or meals affect your energy and digestion can help you eat more healthfully. For example, I know eating something really sweet in the morning almost always gives me a stomach ache. Sometimes a muffin or donuts or something will sound good, but if I don't want to feel junky, I pass. Other days, it might look delicious enough to deal with feeling a bit ick - I mean, from my understanding, no one ever died from being mildly bloated.
Also, different people may benefit from different patterns of eating that feel good for them. Paying attention to how food makes you feel can help you figure that out. I've had some clients who've noticed they sleep better at night with a dinner of protein and vegetables, and others who feel really energized during the day by eating larger amounts of carbs and fat with less protein. Noticing a pattern of eating that feels good for you doesn’t mean you have to follow it as a rigid rule, but it can help guide in making eating decisions.
Cook at home more often.
“Clean eating" has created a huge fear around processed foods, and while I don’t advocate clean eating and all it’s fearmongering, there is some truth that nutritionally, it's beneficial to eat more fresh, whole foods, and less processed foods. Note, that doesn't mean NO processed foods. Many processed foods can make eating healthy more convenient - think flavored brown rice mixes you can add protein and veggies to and make a meal, or canned bean soups you can pair with a side salad for lunch.
Cooking at home is one way to incorporate more fresh foods. Of course, it's not reasonable to expect to cook at home for every meal, but it is worthwhile to think of ways that cooking at home can be easier and more enjoyable. For you, that might be batch cooking some soup on the weekends, having some pantry meals on hand, or getting a new cookbook with recipes that get you excited to experiment with!
Tune into hunger and fullness.
Diets teach counting calories, points, macros or portion sizes as a way to practice portion control. But the fact is our energy needs change from day to day, and shooting for a static number isn't very helpful. The best way to ensure you're getting an appropriate amount of food for you is to tune in to hunger and fullness cues. On days your body requires more energy, your body will tell you, and on days your body requires less energy, you'll feel that too. Here's a post I wrote on the hunger/fullness scale.
Create an environment that makes it easy to make health-promoting choices.
We make a lot of decisions unconsciously, based off of environmental cues. So it's smart to create an environment that prompts you to make healthier choices. Little things like keeping running/walking shoes at work so you can squeeze in a jog/walk on your lunch break, having a bowl of fruit on the counter, or keeping grab and go snacks available, can all unconsciously trigger your brain. Whenever you're trying to foster a new habit, think about what environmental cues you can set up as a reminder.
Am I ready for gentle nutrition?
Not everyone reading this may be ready for gentle nutrition. If diet mentality is deeply engrained, or if you're active in an eating disorder/disordered eating, it's helpful to focus on healing your relationship with food first. That likely requires putting nutrition on the backseat. You have the rest of your life to eat healthy - there's no rush!
If you feel like you’re ready to engage in nutrition, but not sure how to start, feel free to reach out to me for intuitive eating coaching. As a dietitian who values the power of nutrition, AND the importance of having a healthy relationship with food, I love to help clients discover how gentle nutrition can play a role in their life.