what is gentle nutrition

Gentle Nutrition: Nourishing Without Obsession

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Honor your health with gentle nutrition is the 10th and last principle of intuitive eating. As an intuitive eating dietitian, this is my favorite of the principles. Gentle nutrition focuses on nourishing your body without restricting food intake or living with food rules. It also encourages enjoyable forms of movement, such as joyful movement.

Gentle nutrition also promotes connection to yourself. It takes into consideration what you want to eat and what you need to eat, for overall health. If that’s something that you’d like to practice more of, then keep on reading to learn how applying gentle nutrition can improve your physical and emotional health.

What is gentle nutrition
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What is gentle nutrition in intuitive eating?

Gentle nutrition boils down to one thing: you don’t have to eat perfectly to be healthy. Nourishing your body shouldn’t have to be rigid, restrictive, or complicated. Like the authors of Intuitive Eating 4th Edition express:

You will not suddenly get a nutrient deficiency or become unhealthy from one snack, one meal, or one day pf eating. It’s what you eat consistently over time that matters–progress, not perfection, is what counts.

Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch, Intuitive Eating, 4th Edition

The 10th principle of intuitive eating teaches us that there are no strict rules to follow, such as counting calories or measuring portion sizes. Instead, it encourages listening to your body and choosing what you really want to eat.

Intuitive eating is a form of nutrition that is flexible yet empowers people to make food choices based on what their bodies need. It enables individuals to actually listen to their bodies and make attuned decisions without dieting or restricting certain types of foods.

The emphasis of intuitive eating and gentle nutrition is on the following internal cues:

It also considers external nutrition and health guidelines, but in a non-diet way:

Instead of using numbers (like calories or points) to guide food choices, gentle nutrition enables you to make decisions based on what YOU need nutritionally and physically. You also get to decide which of the external nutrition recommendations you’d like to integrate for your own health goals–and what healthy eating looks like.

Common misconceptions

Many people think that gentle nutrition, and intuitive eating, is equal to uncontrollably eating only “unhealthy” foods (which us intuitive eating Registered Dietitians call play foods). But that’s not the case at all. Intuitive eating does value nutrition for good health.

We know for a fact that our bodies need proper nourishment in order to function well. Nourishment is:

  • Taking in food and nutrients to sustain life
  • Maintaining energy and vitality through enough energy (food) intake
  • Allowing for pleasure through the eating experience

But it knows that nutrition is not the only factor that influences health. It also gives equal weight to the relationship you have with food.

Let’s take a closer look at how gentle nutrition fuses both “healthy ” foods and “play” foods in an overall eating pattern.

What is “healthy” eating?

How to incorporate both healthy foods and play foods in a balanced eating pattern
There’s no such thing as “good” or “bad” foods in intuitive eating

In intuitive eating, “healthy” eating is equal to including a wide variety of foods and having a healthy relationship with food. I say “healthy” in quotes because there’s no such thing as one-size-fits-all. Everyone has different nourishment needs.

Gentle nutrition is the combination of knowing what your body needs nutritionally for health promotion, and knowing what your body needs in a particular moment.

For example, you know that it’s important to include vegetables in your meals, since they will give you the vitamins, minerals and fiber your body needs. But you also know that if you’re craving a scoop of chocolate ice cream and nothing else will do, well, there’s nothing wrong with eating that too!

Of course, there is a nutritional difference between eating an apple versus a piece of apple pie. Having a healthy relationship with food means you are not morally superior or inferior based on your eating choices

Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch, Intuitive Eating, 4th Edition

Gentle nutrition also means not guilt-tripping yourself for “indulging” on what diet culture considers “bad foods”. For example, gentle nutrition would look like knowing that nothing else will satisfy your sweet tooth at the moment like a slice of cheesecake, eating it, and going on about your day. You’ll know that these fun foods can also be a part of your eating pattern without collapsing your health!

Nutrition is important. However, unless we learn to regard food for what it is (energy and nutrients that fuel the body) and develop a positive relationship with eating, gentle nutrition will ultimately be turned into another diet. And although good nutrition is essential for preventing and managing disease states, it’s only a small piece of the puzzle.

Why gentle nutrition is the very last step in intuitive eating

As you can already see, gentle nutrition takes into account your nutritional needs, and your relationship with food and eating.

However, unless you have already developed a healthy relationship with food, eating for the purpose of health can be easily turned into another diet. This is why gentle nutrition is the last of the intuitive eating principles.

Unless you learn to make peace with food, ditch the dieting mentality, and allow yourself to eat unconditionally, gentle nutrition can turn into another set of food rules.

When implementing gentle nutrition, it’s important to have a pretty solid foundation in terms of a good relationship with food and your body. Don’t know where to start? Check out this post on the 10 Principles of Intuitive Eating for a roadmap to your intuitive eating journey.

how to start intuitive eating
Want to start your intuitive eating journey but don’t know where to begin? Join my email list and download this FREE workbook on 5 steps that can start you off on the road towards food freedom.

Examples of what gentle nutrition looks like

Gentle nutrition can thus look like choosing nutrient dense foods as a conscious decision to nourish and take care of your health. And it’s also not stressing if you eat an ice cream sundae for dessert–or just because! It involves basing food choices on personal needs instead of an external diet plan or rules.

It provides flexible mindset tools for those struggling with food freedom issues such as:

  • Feeling “out of control” around certain foods
  • Constantly thinking about food or body image
  • Following rules on what to eat  

A great explanation of what gentle nutrition looks like is in this episode of Food Psych, an amazing anti-diet podcast. Heidi Schauster explains what she calls “nutrition common sense”, aka, gentle nutrition.

Schauster discusses how gentle nutrition actually comes from a place of self-care. It’s all about knowing how to best take care of ourselves with food. Nurturing ourselves vs trying to “get it right” with nutrition.

Nutritional common sense involves all that we’ve been talking about up to this point: honoring your internal eating signals and your overall nutritional needs.

Here are some great nuggets from the podcast on what gentle nutrition can look like:

  • Approaching your meals with intention to nourish yourself physically and emotionally
  • Preparing your meals just the way you like them
  • Incorporate, and allow, pleasure in the eating experience
  • Making sure you have “enough”: enough food portions, enough meal satisfaction, enough eating pleasure

How do you apply gentle nutrition?

Here are some additional ways to approach nutrition in a non-diet way:

  • Looking at the overall picture. As discussed in the beginning, one meal, snack or food choice is not going to make or break you. How you eat and relate to food over time is what matters in terms of your health.
  • Including a wide variety of foods. Diet culture frequently encourages us to cut out foods and food groups based on the “good food”/”bad food” mentality. But our bodies aren’t meant to cut out whole food groups. In fact, the more varied our diets are, the more nutrients we’ll be including. But remember to take your personal preferences into account. If you don’t like kale, for example, trying to force yourself to eat it is the opposite of honoring your truth. Choosing the carrots you do like when you want to eat vegetables is practicing gentle nutrition.
  • Allowing yourself flexibility. Intuitive eating is not about eating perfectly. It’s about acknowledging that you don’t have to eat a certain way to promote your health. Flexibility means that some days you’ll eat more play foods, and some days you’ll eat more nutritionally dense foods, and it’s OK. Everything will average out over time and your health won’t suffer. It’s about having your cake and eating it too!
  • Learning to trust yourself around play foods. Know that your body never wants too much of anything. If you slow down long enough while you’re eating and truly learn to listen to what your body is telling you, you’ll find out there’s really no such thing as being “out of control” around food. Especially when it comes to including play foods without unnecessary guilt.
  • Making intentional choices. Choosing to eat (or not eat) a food from a place of honoring your health and your taste preferences. This will eventually help you identify which foods feel and taste good to you. It can also show you how you can incorporate those foods sustainably into your eating pattern. 

When gentle nutrition is applied instead of following strict food rules, making food decisions based on what your body needs becomes second nature and you learn to eat in the way you were born to. This form of nutrition focuses on getting rid of the diet mentality and instead, getting back to basics.

Ready to practice gentle nutrition?

As stated before, gentle nutrition is the last step in becoming an intuitive eater. It may take awhile to get there, and that’s OK! Intuitive Eating is about unlearning all the false beliefs that diet culture has taught us. And ultimately about learning how to re-connect with your inner body wisdom.

Here’s how to know if you’re ready for this step in intuitive eating:

  • Do I have rules around food or strategies like “healthy eating”  or “portion control”?
  • Do I view food as “good” or “bad”?
  • Do I feel guilty when eating a “bad” food?
  • Do I allow myself to choose what I really want to eat?
  • Am I choosing foods because I want to eat them, or because I think I should eat them?
  • Do I feel ashamed my food cravings?
  • What would gentle nutrition look like in my life?
  • Does a gentle approach to nutrition feel right for me?
  • What are some gentle ways I could nourish myself now if I was practicing this for the first time?

Additional resources

Here are some great gentle nutrition books that I love on this topic.

Conclusion

Gentle Nutrition is an approach to food and eating that is attuned, flexible and non-diet focused.  It is based on the idea that all people are capable of responding to their body’s internal cues, which lead them towards what they need physically and emotionally. This requires breaking through rules about eating, perfectionism around eating and stress around food choices or cravings.

It gives you permission to trust yourself as the best expert on what you need while taking away those critical voices which can make you feel ashamed of your choices.

And if you need professional support in navigating intuitive eating, you can always schedule a free discovery call with me right here.

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