14. Gentle Nutrition: The Sustainable Way to Eat Healthy

anti-diet gentle nutrition healthy eating hunger/fullness intuitive eating Aug 16, 2023
Gentle Nutrition, Intuitive Eating

In the last episode I talked about one of the main misconceptions about Intuitive Eating - that it is an eat all you want, whenever you want, free-for-all eating fest - and how some of the critics’ express concern that encouraging people to listen to their body encourages them to eat with reckless abandon and nutrition goes out the window. That couldn't be further from the truth.

Moving away from the scale and rigid diet rules is a key step in creating a healthier relationship with food and can ultimately be one of the most pro-nutrition and positive things you can do for your health. Doing so creates the mental space and attitude toward food that allows you to adopt health-promoting habits that are rooted in self-care, and in a way that's actually sustainable.

I want to be clear on this…nutrition is an important aspect of Intuitive Eating.

Intuitive Eating is about finding food freedom in a way that makes you feel good mentally and physically. Studies have shown that Intuitive Eating is associated with improved nutrition intake, eating a wider variety of foods, and reduced eating disorder and disordered eating symptoms. The 10th principle of Intuitive Eating is called Gentle Nutrition. The reason that this principle is the last principle is because for many people, focusing on nutrition too early can sabotage their ability to challenge restrictive food rules and the notion of “good” vs. “bad” foods. It is also easy to turn Intuitive Eating into a diet by applying black-and-white, rigid thinking to the principles such as, “I must always have a carb, protein and fat at every meal”. If you haven’t created a healthy relationship with food, it’s very difficult to pursue a balanced and healthy approach to eating. For chronic dieters who have spent years buying into some form of diet culture, the best nutrition guidelines can still be embraced like a diet.

We really do have to do work to heal your relationship with food first. Once you've ditched the diet mentality and crushed the food police, you'll be able to take nutrition into consideration when making decisions about food and have those decisions come from self-care, not restriction. You’ll be able to engage with nutrition in a way that actually improves your health. I also want to point out the emphasis on the word gentle. Good nutrition isn't rigid, restrictive, or complicated. Gentle nutrition is flexible and is about making food choices that are both satisfying to your taste buds while also honoring your health. The goal is to balance your intake of nutritious foods with play foods and consistency over time, never one meal or day of eating, is what really matters when it comes to nutrition. That’s why today I’m going to share a lot of examples of what gentle nutrition looks like and some simple ways that you can begin to incorporate gentle nutrition practices into your routine.

No doubt, you’ve probably heard the words “variety,” “moderation,” and “balance” to describe healthy eating. These three tenets of nutrition have been chanted for decades because they work! Let’s further explore what each of these mean as an Intuitive Eater.

Variety: Healthy nutrition means eating a full spectrum of nutrients and types of foods. Eating a variety of fruits, vegetables, fats, proteins, and grains provides a wider range of vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, prebiotics, and probiotics. All of these nutrients are necessary to keep our heart, mind, skin, eyes, and gut functioning optimally.

Moderation: It’s most beneficial to allow yourself to eat all types of food without going to extremes of either too much or too little. Moderation is not about eliminating foods. Eliminating whole food groups makes it much harder to get the nutrients your body needs. Moderation for the Intuitive Eater is about being open to day-to-day variations in your diet depending on your appetite, cravings, and activity level.

Balance: When we think about balance, consistency over time is what matters when it comes to nutrition, so balance is intended to be achieved over a period of time. You will not make or break your health from one meal or day of eating and you won’t suddenly get a nutrient deficiency if you did not eat enough in one day.

Our bodies are remarkably adaptable and have some built-in mechanisms that help us get the nutrients we need. For example:

• If you eat less iron or calcium rich foods over a few days, your body will start absorbing more of those nutrients from the food you are eating.

• If your body is getting too much vitamin C, your body excretes it.

• If you eat too little, your body will slow down its need for calories.

Those 3 tenets inform of healthy eating are totally intertwined with the Intuitive Eating process.

When I’m working on gentle nutrition with my clients, we focus on the importance of balancing nutrition and taste when making food choices. For example, if you’re substituting a food because it’s lower in fat, carbs or gluten but tastes like garbage, it won’t be satisfying, and you’ll be on the prowl for something else that will be.

Quantity is critical as well – it’s important to be eating consistently and enough to reach satiety and fuel your metabolism.

Coffee does not = breakfast. I can’t tell you how many times a client was in a pattern of having just coffee for breakfast, then a salad or something light for lunch in an effort to be “good” and end up in a state of extreme hunger and end up eating everything in sight later in the day. You know what happens next…the guilt sets in and the feeling of needing to get back on track leads to limiting food again the following day. This is a typical binge restrict pattern I see with new clients, and it leaves them feeling out of control and blaming themselves for not having willpower. But it’s truly just the body’s natural response to food restriction and why making the shift to eating enough food throughout the day to stay fueled is the solution to prevent these types of chaotic eating episodes.

We also focus on the Quality of food choices.

This means aiming for a wide variety of foods as this is one of the best things you can do for overall health.

Humans are hardwired to crave variety for a good reason – as I mentioned, eating a wide variety of food helps ensure you’re getting adequate nutrition. Different foods contain different nutrients, so you want to aim to eat lots of different foods (fruits, vegetables, a wide array of proteins, fats, nuts and seeds, grains and carbohydrate sources)

• From a nutritional standpoint, this helps to ensure that you are providing your body with a variety of vitamins, minerals and antioxidants and preventing any nutritional deficiencies.

• From a psychological standpoint, eating a variety of foods will help you feel less restricted and deprived and can lead to greater food satisfaction.

We also focus on incorporating carbs, fats, protein and fiber in meals and snacks for well-rounded nutrition and to ensure they are satisfying and have staying power.

I encourage you to focus to be on addition, not subtraction.

Most diet advice centers on restriction – eating less, avoiding or limiting certain foods, and making food swaps. With intuitive eating, all foods fit. Of course, some foods are more nutrient-dense than others. With adding in, instead of focusing on restriction, the focus is on including more nutrient-dense foods. So, for example, if you like fish but tend to rely on meats as your main protein source, you may want to look at how you can include fish more frequently.

o Keep frozen scallops, salmon or other fish filets in the freezer for a quick and easy weeknight dinner.

o Keep canned wild salmon and tuna on hand for salads, snacks or sandwiches.

How can you incorporate more leafy greens into meals?

o Add chopped spinach to scrambled eggs or frittatas.

o Make a grain bowl with leftover grains, add some protein and fat and put in over a bed of greens.

o Mix kale into meatballs or meatloaf recipes, soups or chili.

What about including more whole grains?

o Swap your English muffin for a whole grain version.

o Experiment with whole grains in your cooking (use quinoa, farro or brown rice in place of white rice)

o Pair whole grain crackers with hummus, peanut butter or cheese for a snack.

Zoom Out

If you're thinking about ways to improve the quality of your diet, it's worth thinking about big picture patterns, not stressing over single meals or social eating situations. Our bodies are not robots computing all of the nutrients we consumed at the end of the day and adjusting our health accordingly. One meal, one day or one week is NOT going to make or break your health.

With gentle nutrition, we zoom out and look at the big picture.

On most days, I’m typically asking myself what I’m in the mood for, what sounds good in the moment, and I will also consider foods that I haven’t been eating as much of lately.

For example, I enjoy fruit, but I tend to gravitate toward vegetables over fruit. This awareness helps me think about how to add more fruits into meals. This neutral observation helps me to take an action that is rooted in health and self-care.

If you haven’t been eating many whole grains, you might choose to have brown rice instead of white rice with your meal - making a choice that ladders up to the principle of gentle nutrition.

Check in with yourself with these 3 questions:

• Over the course of a week, did you eat a variety of foods from all food groups?

• In general, are you eating enough food to keep your energy up and metabolism fueled?

• Over the course of a week, are you aiming for meals with a balance of carbs, protein and fat?

Here are some examples of ways you can zoom out and identify opportunities to incorporate gentle nutrition:

• Are you in the habit of doing takeout or going out to lunch most days at work? Maybe you can pack a quick & easy lunch that includes produce in it a couple times a week.

• If you have been drinking sugar sweetened beverages every day, maybe you can swap them for water or flavored seltzer several days during the week?

• If sandwiches are a go-to lunch, is there a whole grain bread that you enjoy and wouldn't mind switching to for a little nutrient and fiber boost.?

Keep in mind, gentle nutrition will look a little different for everyone. Here are a few more examples to help you get a better sense of what gentle nutrition looks like.

• Putting effort into thinking about how you can incorporate all 3 macronutrients (carbs, protein and fat) and some fiber into meals & snacks when possible because you know they’re all important for your body to function properly and to help you feel full and satisfied.

• Making a batch of high protein muffins to have on hand for breakfast and snacks. Our muscles need protein, and it helps keep you full and satisfied.

• Bringing veggies and hummus for an afternoon snack vs. having a candy bar every day to provide a more sustaining boost of energy.

• Adding a variety of fruit and veggies into a morning smoothie to get a dose of vitamins and minerals.

• Playing around with portion sizes (eating more or less food or different types of foods) if you’re finding that you’re not feeling great after meals.

Tune Inward

Another gentle nutrition practice is tuning inward to how foods make your body feel. Intuitive Eating is centered around attunement with your body and paying attention to what food feels good, as well as how different foods or meals affect your energy and digestion.

So, you want to consider what will be satisfying to your taste buds, while honoring how you will feel physically when you eat it.

For example, I love pasta primavera, especially when it has a creamy sauce - but sometimes cream based sauces don’t make me feel good physically. So, I evaluate on a case-by-case basis if satisfying my desire for that taste is worth a bit of bloating and discomfort. If I will be home after the meal and don’t have any plans or obligations, I might decide a little tummy discomfort is not a problem. If I’m at a work event, I prefer not to take that chance.

I occasionally enjoy a fast-food crispy chicken sandwich and fries. However, I find that about half-way through the meal my stomach starts to feel a little uncomfortable. I’ve learned that if I stop when I start to feel that way, I’m fine. If I finish the meal, I’m usually uncomfortable for several hours afterward. Because of this, I also tend to keep this as an occasional meal and not one in my typical routine.

You may find that different patterns of eating feel better than others so paying attention to how food makes you feel can help you figure that out. I have a client who finds she sleeps better at night when she eats more protein and vegetables at dinner. Noticing a pattern of eating that feels good doesn’t mean you need to follow it as a rigid rule, but it’s good information to help guide you in making eating decisions.

What about if you have a medical condition that will be helped by paying attention to nutrition?

If you have high blood pressure, diabetes, celiac disease, diagnosed food allergies or any other diseases or conditions that are known to be impacted by certain foods or ingredients, it’s an act of self-care to make choices that minimize the potential for exacerbated symptoms or negative consequences. For example, with diabetes, it’s important to monitor how different foods impact blood glucose. Intuitive Eating can help reduce anxiety and guilt around food choices by monitoring blood glucose and adjusting eating behaviors in a non-judgmental way. So instead of thinking “I can’t eat this,” an Intuitive Eater will think “my blood glucose doesn’t respond as well to this food” and adjust food choices as needed.

Stay connected to your hunger and fullness cues.

I talk a lot about how diets discourage attunement to your body by encouraging you to follow external rules, count calories, points, macros, and other restrictive practices. But the fact is, our energy needs change from day to day. The best way to ensure you're getting an appropriate amount of food to meet your body’s needs is to tune in to hunger and fullness cues. On days your body requires more energy, your body will tell you, and it will also let you know when your body requires less energy. If you struggle with recognizing and trusting your body’s hunger and fullness cues, I created a free resource guide - 5 Steps to Reconnect with Hunger and Fullness - that can help. In it, I teach you how to use the Hunger Fullness Scale to keep you fueled, energized, and prevent overeating. Just go to to download your free copy.

To wrap up this discussion on gentle nutrition:

1. Remember, one meal or one day of eating won't define your health- your overall pattern of eating matters more - and food is more than just nutrition, food is meant to be enjoyed!

2. Focus on keeping your body fueled throughout the day. Avoid skipping meals or "saving up" calories. This can be a set up for extreme hunger and backfire with rebound or "out of control" eating.

3. Pause and ask what you need from the meal you’re about to eat.

a. How do you want to feel after?

b. What food sounds good that you know you will enjoy?

c. How can you add gentle nutrition?

d. What quantity is going to feel best?

4. What if you ate to an uncomfortable level of fullness? It happens now and then! Sometimes we do eat past the point of comfortable fullness, either by choice or unintentionally. There’s no reason to feel guilt. It's part of normal human eating.

• Acknowledge it and reflect: What can you do differently, if anything, next time?

• This learning will help you be more discerning and make positive changes in the future. 

I hope you found these tips helpful and will start applying gentle nutrition practices into your eating routine. And remember, it’s the little changes over time that add up to big results. 

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