What Is Gentle Nutrition and How Does It Make Peace With Good and Bad Foods?

Aug 20, 2021 | Intuitive Eating, Newsletter

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Does deciding what to eat stress you out? Are you tired of feeling like you’re “good” or “bad” depending on what you ate? Are you over feeling judged for what you eat? Do you wish there was a better way to sort through all the nutrition noise and “just eat” without all the worry? There is! It’s called Gentle Nutrition. And, even better, once you get the hang of it, it is easy. In this article, I’ll talk about what Gentle Nutrition is, what balance and moderation actually are and how you can stop the constant argument in your head about what to, and what not to, eat.

That Argument in Your Head

You’re having lunch with a group of girlfriends you haven’t seen in person in over a year. You’re finally back at that restaurant you’ve been dreaming about.

You were busy this morning and skipped breakfast. Now you’re starving. Everything on the menu looks good. You take a deep breath and see they’ve put your favorite salad on the menu. But…you see they’ve also added back that burger you love.

Your stomach growls. “FEED ME NOW!”

You start having that familiar argument about having the salad and being “good” vs. having the burger and being “bad.” Before you know it the waiter asks, “And, what about you? What would you like to order?” All your friends look at you and you say…

What is Intuitive Eating?

Intuitive Eating is a way to bring together your intuition, emotions, and rational thoughts and develop healthy relationships with food and your body. Becoming an Intuitive Eater is a process that takes time, but also practice.

Intuitive eating is not dieting. In fact, it is often called the “anti-diet.” When you start working on becoming an intuitive eater you don’t get a list of allowed and forbidden foods and go on your way. You unlearn all the dieting rules that have become engrained in your head and reprogram all the negative things about food and your body that you’ve learned over the years. Working without the structure and rules of a diet can feel unsettling at first. Just like learning any other new skill, comfort and mastery come with practice.

When people become intuitive eaters, their food choices balance out and naturally include fruits, vegetables, etc. – all those things you’ve been told you “should” eat. In fact, “[s]tudies show Intuitive Eating is associated with improved nutrient intake, eating a wider variety of food, and reduced eating disorder symptomatology.”,1

Why should you consider jumping off the dieting bandwagon? Intuitive Eating is right for those who are ready to stop listening to all the “experts” about what they should and shouldn’t eat. They’re ready to start listening to and honoring their bodies. It is also for those who are tired of spending time, energy, and money trying to achieve and maintain that “perfect body” (that a vast majority of us can never do anyway). Becoming an intuitive eater gives you the freedom to eat without all the guilt, shame, and judgment involved in dieting.

If you want to learn more about Intuitive Eating, the article How Not to Diet in 2021, Stress Free, Using Intuitive Eating provides information about what Intuitive Eating means.

What is Gentle Nutrition?

The term Gentle Nutrition – confuses some people. “What the heck does ‘gentle nutrition’ mean, anyway?” I can hear you asking. “Isn’t that all about eating for nourishment not pleasure?”

In the landmark book about Intuitive Eating, the authors and founders of the Intuitive Eating movement talk about how Julia Child spearheaded a project called “Resetting the American Table: Creating a New Alliance of Taste and Health.” The key message from this project was:

“In matters of taste, consider nutrition, and in matters of nutrition, consider taste.”

This, the authors of the book say is “gentle nutrition.”

You might still have that confused look on your face. I did, too when I was first getting my head around this Principle.

One of the foundations of Intuitive Eating is learning to avoid all-or-none and black-and-white thinking. Looking at the key statement from Julia Child’s project above through an Intuitive Eating lens, I’d say:

When choosing and cooking foods, don’t just think about the taste, also think about:

  • How the food will taste
  • How the food will make you feel
  • How the food supports your health
  • How satisfying the food will be

And, when thinking about the nutrition of the food, I’d also think about:

  • How does the food taste
  • How satisfying the food will be
  • How the food supports your health
  • How the food will make you feel

Just because a food is healthy doesn’t mean it should taste bad. Just because a food is decadent doesn’t mean it isn’t good for you. This means that as an Intuitive Eater, you’ll get to eat food that tastes good and nourishes your body. If you don’t like a food, you don’t have to eat it regardless of how “healthy” it is.

What is Healthy Eating?

As a dietitian, people tend to have assumptions about what I eat. Do I eat “healthy” foods 24/7? Not really…but I do have a healthy relationship with the foods I do choose to eat.

The word “healthy” gets thrown around everywhere and it can be confusing. In Intuitive Eating, as stated in the book1, healthy eating is:

“ . . . having a healthy balance of foods and having a healthy relationship with food.”

“Healthy eating” isn’t just about the food. It is also about your relationship with food. When I talk with clients about “healthy eating” we start with balance and moderation.

What are Balance and Moderation?

“Balance” and “moderation” are kind of like hearing the teacher talk in the old Charlie Brown cartoons. When you hear “balance” and “moderation” they turn into that “wha, wha, wha” that the teachers in those cartoons say. Your brain turns off and you don’t hear anything because you don’t know what those words mean.

Unlike a gymnast on a balance beam where balance is a second-to-second achievement, in eating, balance is achieved over a period of time – a week, a couple of weeks, even a month, quarter, or year.

One meal, snack, or food isn’t going to make or break your health. Balance is what you eat – cumulatively – over a period of time. Each meal doesn’t have to be balanced. If you want popcorn for dinner, go for it! Most likely, in another meal, you’ll really want some protein and vegetables.

Balanced nutrition means that you eat a variety of foods over a period of time so that your body’s nutrition needs are met.

Moderation is when you don’t go overboard with a food by eating too little or too much of it over a period of time. Maybe for a couple of nights, you feel like popcorn for dinner. Then, you start eating your normal dinner again.  That is OK!

Let’s say that in the summer you eat a ton of fresh cherries that you enjoy buying from the farmer’s market. Then, when they go out of season in a couple of months you don’t have any until they come back into season. Yup, that is balance and moderation over a year. And, that is OK!

What is a “healthy relationship with food”?

A “healthy relationship with food” just like “gentle nutrition” isn’t black-and-white.

Having a healthy relationship with food means you are not morally superior or inferior based on your eating choices. . . Eating selection is not a reflection of your character. [footnote]

Wait. . . WHAT?!?!?

Yup. A healthy relationship with food means, at its most basic level, that you don’t assign moral values – “good/bad” – to food or to yourself for the foods you eat or don’t eat. Food is just food. You are just you. Food, and your choice to eat or not eat a food, does NOT determine your worth or character.

If food is just food, all the marketing and discussions about food like “You deserve it!” and “I’m going to be bad and order dessert!” Or, “I’m going to be good and have a salad” become irrelevant. Food becomes a way to nourish your body while still being able to choose to eat for pleasure when you want.

Putting It All Together with Gentle Nutrition

Gentle nutrition is eating in a way over time that provides balanced nutrition, eating in moderation, and where you have a healthy relationship with food. Gentle nutrition also considers taste and nutrition together when choosing and preparing foods.

Gentle nutrition includes choosing food that supports your health and helps you feel good. Yes, you can choose to eat foods that don’t do either of those things – that is your right as the owner of your body. Those who have become intuitive eaters choose a variety of foods, including those “play foods” (AKA “junk foods”). And, that is a part of gentle nutrition, too. Sometimes we want to eat just for pleasure or to relieve stress.

Starting to Practice Gentle Nutrition

You can start working on gentle nutrition at any time in your journey of becoming an Intuitive Eater. You may find some challenges if you haven’t worked through the other principles because you may find diet rules popping up, or feel like you’re being attacked by the Food Police if you haven’t at least started working on those Principles.

Awareness of gentle nutrition, and starting to think through what it would be like to practice it is one place to start. You can also start being aware of how what you eat makes you feel and, when you’re choosing foods, think about how you want to feel after your meal and choosing foods to help you feel that way.

And, when you are out with your girlfriends, I hope you ordered the food you really wanted to order. . . .

Key takeaways

Working on Gentle Nutrition allows you to eat without assigning moral values – good and bad – to food and yourself for the foods that you choose. Breaking the habit of moralizing about food and yourself can be a challenge. If you want some help, I’m here for you. Just set up a call with me and we can talk about what’s going on and how you can get started.

1Intuitive Eating: A Revolutionary Program That Works by Evelyn Tribole, MS, RDN, CEDRD-S and Elyse Resch, MS, RDN, CEDRD-S, FAND

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