How to Practice Gentle Nutrition in Intuitive Eating

Intuitive Eating isn't just "eat what you want." Learn how to practice gentle nutrition in Intuitive Eating. #intuitiveeating #haes #nutrition #wellness #health

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." 
Intuitive Eating isn't just "eat what you want." Learn how to practice gentle nutrition in intuitive eating. #intuitiveeating #health #wellness #nutrition #antidiet #nondiet

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. 

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. 

Intuitive Eating isn't just "eat what you want." Learn how to practice gentle nutrition in intuitive eating. #intuitiveeating #health #wellness #nutrition #antidiet #nondiet

So what does gentle nutrition look like? Here's eight ideas for how to practice gentle nutrition in intuitive eating: 

1. Focus on the big picture, not individual food choices. 

Individual food choices make very little difference when it comes to health. If I'm evaluating the nutritional adequacy of a clients eating patterns, I could care less if they had a cookie with lunch or a soda with their snack or a double bacon cheeseburger and fries for dinner. 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. If you go out to lunch most days, is there a way you could pack something quick and easy 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 toast every morning for breakfast, is there a whole grain bread that you enjoy and wouldn't mind switching to? Those shifts in the pattern of your eating make much more of a difference than if you ordered a salad over a pizza last night when you were out with friends. 

2. Crowding in. 

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. 

With crowding in, instead of focusing on restriction, the focus is on inclusion - specifically, how to include more nutrient-dense foods. It's 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

3. Include variety. 

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. Also, getting back to the crowding in principle, if you're eating a wide variety of food, it's near impossible to overeat food that is lower in nutrition. 

4. 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. 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 feel like feeling 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 lighter 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. It's not a rule, but general guidelines that can help guide eating decisions.  

5. Cook at home more often. 

As with most diet myths, there's a kernel of truth buried somewhere in there. While "clean eating" has created this huge fear around processed foods, it is true 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. And even foods that are "ultra-processed" are totally fine included in an overall balanced eating pattern. 

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! 

6. 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 the "right" amount of food for you is to tune into the subtle signs of hunger and fullness and use that on a guideline for how much to eat. 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

7. 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. 

Through this discussion of gentle nutrition, it's also important to point out that nutrition is just one part of health. Even though I'm a dietitian and would love to get all self-important, nutrition is a much smaller part of health than mental health, social connections, socio-economic status, access to healthcare, presence of stigma, and getting adequate sleep. If doing something to improve nutrition causes stress, affects your sleep or is socially isolating, then it's not actually the healthiest choice.  

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 need help nourishing a healthier relationship with food and your body, check out my free video series, Rediscover the Joy of Eating. Sign up in the box in the upper right column! Or, if you'd like one-on-one support, shoot me an email and we can set up a free 15 minute phone consultation to see if we're a good fit to work together. 

More on nutrition: 

When Eating a Brownie is the Healthiest Choice

When Eating a Brownie is the Healthiest Choice

Eating Food That Makes You Feel Bleh Does Not Conflict with Intuitive Eating 

Eating Food That Makes You Feel Bleh Does Not Conflict with Intuitive Eating 

How to Plan Filling Meals 

How to Plan Filling Meals