If you’re familiar with intuitive eating, you may have heard of the idea of gentle nutrition. This is the 10th and final principle of IE and describes a lifelong way of approaching nutrition. I always stress the fact that gentle nutrition comes last – there are 9 other foundational principles to IE to work through before jumping to this one! Read on to explore what gentle nutrition means and learn when practicing it might be appropriate.
One of the most frequent reactions I hear when discussing intuitive eating with new clients is “But how can eating whatever you want to be healthy?” Existing within diet culture teaches us that we cannot be trusted with food. Limiting access to certain types or amounts of food is foundational to diet culture and eating disorders. Placing food off limits, however, makes us feel like we cannot be trusted with food. This often ends in a self fulfilling prophecy. For example, put desserts off limits for a week or two, and the minute you have unrestricted access you will likely eat sweets past fullness. If we approach intuitive eating from this diet mindset, of course it seems ridiculous to trust ourselves with unlimited access to all foods. The first 9 principles of IE, however, help us establish a nurturing relationship with food free from restriction or compulsive eating.
How to Start Gentle Nutrition
So, you’ve been working on intuitive eating. You’re feeling stable in your relationship with food. You’re curious about gentle nutrition and you want to take the next step. But what does it even mean? I like to think of gentle nutrition as a bird’s eye approach to food. Individual eating experiences or occasions don’t make or break your health. Gentle nutrition encourages taking a step back and reflect on how to make the food you eat align with your values. While simultaneously serving your health (mental, physical, social, and emotional).
Once we are eating adequately (eating enough to meet your body’s individual needs), the next step is expanding the variety. Do you always gravitate toward high-protein foods? Maybe we need to explore new types of carbs or interesting produce items. Or do you always eat the same few meals on repeat? Maybe it’s time to bring in different recipes or find new products. Adding variety to our meals helps us ensure we are maintaining balance in our relationship with food. To be clear, balance is a word that often gets co-opted by diets to mean ‘making up for bad food with good’. This is not what I mean when I say balance! Within the framework of IE, balance means getting all the macronutrients (fat, carbs, and protein) throughout the day. At most of our meals we will have a mix of different macronutrients. Once we combine balance (all 3 macronutrients regularly) with variety (different foods from each food group) we are in a place to explore gentle nutrition.
Finding What Works for You
Gentle nutrition examines the role of individual foods and gives permission to explore how foods make you feel. For example, if you struggle with high blood pressure maybe you want to focus on adding more high-fiber foods like oatmeal and veggies. Maybe you want to explore managing your diabetes by pairing protein with your carb snacks to regulate blood sugars. Or maybe you realize that you’re struggling with a mid-afternoon energy slump! In this case, an extra snack might be the pick-me-up you need. These are just a few examples of utilizing gentle nutrition in a way that nourishes your body without triggering diet culture.
Gentle nutrition is highly individualized. There is no one-size-fits-all guide to practicing gentle nutrition. I always recommend getting curious about this aspect of IE from the safety of an established outpatient team. Bring your questions and ideas about what gentle nutrition may mean for you to a session with your dietitian. Getting external feedback from a provider who is eating disorder informed can help detect any sneaky ways diet culture might try to influence your journey. Our team of dietitians here at Courage to Nourish are equipped to join you on the journey of navigating gentle nutrition!
In closing, consider reflecting on these questions. And remember to extend compassion to yourselves as we reflect on our unique journeys with intuitive eating.
-What might it look like to approach nutrition from your personal values vs. diet culture or ED values?
-How does the concept of a birds-eye approach to nutrition resonate with you?
Courage to Nourish is a group of eating disorder specialized dietitians. We have in-person locations in Alexandria, Virginia, Columbia, Maryland. and College Park, Maryland. We offer virtual services across the state of Maryland. Virginia, Washington DC. Pennsylvania, and Colorado. We offer individual nutrition therapy. As well as support groups. We would love to guide you in building a better relationship with food.
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Georgia has experience in providing therapeutic meal support, challenging weight bias, normalizing eating, and embracing Health at Every Size in her work with both adolescents and adults. She is passionate about reducing weight stigma in the eating disorder field and developing guidelines for safely incorporating physical activity into eating disorder recovery. She works alongside clients to challenge diet culture together. View Georgia’s full bio here.