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What is Gentle Nutrition?

Intuitive Eating principles #1-9 serve as a framework for developing a healthy relationship with food and body. Finally, nutrition is introduced in principle #10, and there’s a reason it’s saved for last. It doesn’t mean that nutrition is less important. Contrary, fostering a healthy relationship with food first sets a solid foundation for implementing nutrition supportive of total well-being. 

 

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Nutrition From the Ground Up 

Consider the analogy of building a house. I’m no architect, but it’s common sense that laying a solid foundation is the first step in building a stable house. Without a solid foundation, the house will be destroyed by blustering winds or submerged by heavy rainfall. You don’t want to forget this crucial step for a house that lasts a lifetime! 

The same goes for healthy eating. It’s crucial to have a healthy relationship with food as the foundation for a lifetime of eating well. The Intuitive Eating book defines healthy eating as, “a healthy balance of foods and having a healthy relationship with food.” 

Now that we’ve introduced healthy eating through the lens of a healthy relationship with food, let’s explore what this looks like in real life. 

Gentle Nutrition in Real Life 

Throughout my 5+ years of schooling to become a dietitian, the Intuitive Eating book is the only place I’ve seen the word “gentle” precede nutrition. In this context, the word gentle means more flexibility, less rigidity. More nourishment, less deprivation. More self-compassion, less all-or-nothing thinking. Given today’s diet culture, which demonizes certain food choices and celebrates others, I believe that we could all benefit from more gentle nutrition messaging. Here’s what gentle nutrition looks like in real life: 

1. Big picture thinking.

The book perfectly sums this up by saying:

You will not suddenly get a nutrient deficiency or gain weight from one snack, one meal, or one day of eating.

I always share this mantra with my clients that are hyper-focused on what they did or didn’t eat for one meal. It invites them to observe their whole day or week of eating. Our eating patterns over an extended timeframe matter more than one small snack or meal. Unfortunately under diet mentality, one meal that was less-than-nutritious can instantly make one feel worried, stressed, or anxious around food. Stress, anxiety, and worry around food might be signs that preoccupation with nutrition is causing more harm than good. Your mental health is equally important to physical health. Next time you are hyper-focused on one meal, consider how can you zoom out and look at the big picture. 

2. Emphasis on how foods make you feel.

Get curious around how foods make you feel. Which foods make you feel energized? What foods make you feel sluggish? How do foods affect your mood? I call this information, body knowledge. Over time, you will build your personalized bank of body knowledge that you can draw from when making food choices. Eventually, you will start to find foods that taste good and make you feel your best. That’s the sweet spot! For example, I’ve observed that I feel steadily energized if I have a cup of coffee after breakfast. If I have coffee on an empty stomach, I feel jittery and on edge. If I’m grabbing coffee with a friend in the morning, I might eat a granola bar or breakfast at home first. This is personalized body knowledge. Others might enjoy a coffee before breakfast, and one is not superior to the other. It’s all about discovering what works best for YOU

3. Flexible meal planning.

Another common misconception around intuitive eating is that there’s no room for meal planning.

Meal planning does have a place with gentle nutrition! The difference is in how you approach meal planning.

Meal plans can be turned into a diet when coupled with all-or-nothing thinking. Red flags of this include planning from a place of control versus self-care, guilt when deviating from the plan, or failure to take into account food preferences. Under intuitive eating, meal planning is intended to work for you, not against you, by taking into account your lifestyle and preferences! A busy graduate student might practice meal planning to reduce weekday stress, and give herself options for quick assembly meals. A working mom might practice meal planning to ensure that she has favorite foods on hand for herself and kids. Someone with celiac disease might practice meal planning to guarantee a variety of gluten-free food options. All are examples of meal planning from a place of self-care and nutrition enhancement versus control and deprivation. 

4. Nourishment versus deprivation.

Nutrition is defined as the process of providing or obtaining the food necessary for health and growth. Nutrition is nourishment, yet so many diets have misconstrued nutrition to equal less food, “clean food”, or elimination of food groups. To return to the roots of nutrition as nourishment, focus on a wide variety of foods from each food group.  

    • Add 1-3 new foods to your grocery list this week. 
    • Organize your grocery list using this template to ensure choices in each food group. 
    • Try a new preparation method for veggies, such as roasting with your favorite spices or blending into a sauce. 
    • Include more whole grains as a part of your meal pattern by trying non-traditional grains such as millet, buckwheat, or farro. 
    • Rotate through different ethnic cuisines to discover new ingredients and flavors.

5. All foods fit.

We all know that foods like fruits, veggies, whole grains, nuts, legumes, lean proteins, and dairy pack more of a nutritional punch than processed foods like a bag of chips, candy, or packaged cookies. There’s no denying that carrots are more nutritionally dense than carrot cake. But that doesn’t mean there’s no place carrot cake as a part of a healthy dietary pattern! Remember, the definition of healthy eating includes a healthy relationship with food. The intuitive eating book refers to these foods as “play foods” instead of “junk foods”. Some of my favorite play foods come from Trader Joe’s including their tamari crackers, peanut butter filled pretzels, chocolate almond butter cups, and banana chips. Sure a whole banana might offer more potassium than banana chips, but when I’m craving something crunchy and sweet–only the banana chips will do the trick! And, I know that I still get potassium from other foods I eat throughout the day. Try adding a few play foods to your grocery list this week! 

Food for Thought

If you’re ready to embrace gentle nutrition, I hope these examples serve as ideas for practicing nutrition without obsession. Ask yourself: 

  • How can I add greater variety to my meals and snacks? 
  • What food groups, if any, have I been avoiding? For what reasons? 
  • Pick one example above to implement over the next 7 days. Let me know about your experience with gentle nutrition! 

Comment with YOUR key takeaway!

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