One common misconception with intuitive eating is that all nutrition information and knowledge goes out the window. However, this is not the case at all! This blog post will go over the concept of “gentle nutrition” and how to implement it so that you can find food freedom that makes your body feel good body mentally and physically!
What Is Gentle Nutrition?
Gentle nutrition is a term used in the intuitive eating and food freedom world. It’s actually the 10th (last) principle of intuitive eating. Essentially, it’s about making food choices that are both satisfying to your cravings/taste buds while also honoring your health. In other words, it’s about honoring both your physical and mental health.
I am not a fan of the term “moderation” or the “80/20 rule” because I think when we strive for moderation or “balance” we wind up turning that into a food rule which backfires on us. But really what gentle nutrition is is just that… balance.
The graphic below is something that I use to teach gentle nutrition in The SociEATy membership community:
See how that middle area takes both our internal cravings AND external nutrition and health knowledge into account? That’s the goal here! It’s not one or the other.
Also, these circles can ebb and flow throughout life. Someone with a dietary restriction (like an intolerance, allergy, specific health condition like high cholesterol, etc) may need to apply more of that nutrition knowledge than someone without. Whereas someone who, say, maybe just had a baby and is just in survival mode may rely more on those primal cues.
For more on how to navigate having dietary restrictions be sure to check out my blog post on intuitive eating and dietary restrictions. It CAN totally be done!
When To Implement Gentle Nutrition
I mentioned that gentle nutrition is the last principle of intuitive eating and that’s very intentional! Most of the time when you’re working to improve your relationship with food and become an intuitive eater nutrition must be placed on the back burner.
The reason for this is due to the very important step of making peace with food and letting go of diet culture messaging and influences that must happen before focusing on nutrition. If this step is skipped it’s kind of like building a house on a swap. You don’t have a solid foundation in having a healthy relationship with food and are likely to turn gentle nutrition into another diet and not true intuitive eating. This can prevent you from removing the “good” and “bad” labels from food and truly neutralizing food (which is KEY to having food freedom!).
Examples Of Gentle Nutrition
Now that we have a general idea of what gentle nutrition is let’s go over some examples of it:
- Grabbing whole wheat bread VS white bread for a little nutrient and fiber boost. Your body will love it and it will help to keep you full and satisfied longer.
- Making a batch of protein muffins to have on hand for easy grab-and-go snacks. Our muscles love protein and it also helps keep you full and satisfied.
- Packing veggies and hummus for an afternoon snack VS having the candy bar every day when you notice a repeating afternoon slump set in.
- Adding a variety of fruit and veggies into a morning smoothie to get your body a dose of vitamins and minerals that can be protective for your health and protect against disease states.
- Giving your body some protein after a workout, like snacking on a Greek yogurt, because you know the protein will help your muscles recover nice and strong.
- Adding some structure to your eating pattern to prevent yourself from going too long without eating and getting too hungry leading you to eat past fullness (pack snacks, make time to have filling meals, etc)
- When preparing a meal thinking about including all 3 macronutrients (carbs, protein and fat) because you know they’re all important for our bodies to function properly and to help you feel full and satisfied (i.e. not in the pantry 5 minutes after dinner looking for something to “hit the spot” because you skipped carbs all together and only had cauliflower rice)
- Using some chickpea or lentil based pasta for an added protein and fiber punch to your meal.
- Keeping a water bottle with you so that you can stay hydrated because you know that dehydration can impact your hunger cues as well as digestion.
- Playing around with portion sizes (having more or less overall food or different types of foods) if you’re finding that you’re not feeling great after meals.
- Picking a food or beverage that’s lower in added sugar/has fewer ingredients/etc. if both of them satisfy you just the same.
When To NOT Use Gentle Nutrition
Now, like I’ve said, it’s important to also consider your “internal wisdom” such as your cravings, desires and taste preferences when implementing gentle nutrition. If implementing nutrition knowledge takes away from that it may not be an appropriate time to do so. Here is an example:
I typically buy wheat bread VS white bread as a way to implement gentle nutrition. Both of them satisfy me just the same, so sure, I’ll go for some added nutrients with the wheat bread. However, when it comes to rice, I find white rice WAY more satisfying than brown rice. So, I do NOT implement gentle nutrition here by picking the whole grain brown rice over the white rice. It would take away from my enjoyment and satisfaction and likely leave me feeling unsatisfied looking for something else to “hit the spot”.
But guess what? Someone else may be the opposite! Maybe they hate wheat bread and are totally fine with brown rice. Gentle nutrition is highly individualized. What is gentle nutrition for you might not be gentle nutrition for your neighbor.
The last thing to note here is that there is a difference between a food rule and a food preference. You shouldn’t feel guilt/stress/anxiety when implementing gentle nutrition. For example, if I were to feel guilt/stress/anxiety if I went to buy my wheat bread and all they had was white bread? That might signal that my “gentle nutrition” is actually a food rule that needs to be broken. You should feel okay with either choice!
How To Get Started With Gentle Nutrition
It’s first important to know if you’re ready to start implementing gentle nutrition before beginning to do so. Remember, gentle nutrition is put on the back burner during the start of one’s intuitive eating journey so that a solid foundation can be laid (i.e. developing a healthy relationship with food and body) and it can be approached in a non-diet way. Ask yourself these questions before starting to focus on implementing gentle nutrition:
- Have I worked to break my food rules?
- Do I view food as morally equal and not “good” or “bad”?
- Do I no longer feel guilt when eating a previously deemed "bad" food?
- Do I view my body through a weight neutral lens?
- Is the reason for implementing gentle nutrition for my health/wellbeing and not for something else like changing the way it looks?
If the answers are “yes” then you’re likely ready to begin applying gentle nutrition. If not, be sure to check out my blog post on how to break your food rules, which will help get you to a place of viewing foods neutrally- not as “good” or “bad”.
And for the weight neutrality part? I know this can be a struggle as well so be sure to check out my post on wanting intuitive eating and weight loss for more guidance here!
Now let’s dive into the steps to start actually implementing gentle nutrition- these are the same steps that I guide members of The SociEATy through to help them honor both their physical and mental health through intuitive eating!
Step One: Start By Observing
The first thing you’ll want to do is to observe your current eating habits. You can do this by using something called a “food and mood journal”. Essentially you want to ask yourself if there is anything about your current style of eating that doesn’t feel good. That is where you’ll want to start.
Maybe you notice that you get super hungry by lunch time or that your afternoon snack leaves you feeling sluggish. Those are great pieces of information to guide your gentle nutrition.
Step Two: Pick One Thing To Try
Instead of trying to implement ALL of the things at once just pick ONE thing to start with. This is going to allow your practice of gentle nutrition to be much more sustainable as well as to allow you to know if what you're doing actually makes you feel better or not.
So, for example, maybe if you’re feeling hungry by lunch you take a look at breakfast and see if it has carbs, protein, and fat. If not you could add some or maybe add some fiber to help. Or, if it hits all the spots, maybe you just need more food so you add a mid-morning snack.
Another example, if your afternoon snack leaves you feeling sluggish maybe you try having more whole food based snack, like an apple and peanut butter VS a bag of chips.
Step Three: Experiment
Now take that one thing you’ve decided on and apply it. But do this through the lens of experimentation! Go into it having no expectations or judgement of the outcome. This will help you decide for yourself if this form of gentle nutrition feels good and is satisfying to you or if you need to go back to the drawing board and try something else.
It can be helpful to pretend you’re a scientist. It’s an experiment where you’re just gathering data!
Step Four: Reflect
Now, it’s time to take that data you just collected from your experiment and decide for yourself if it felt good or not. This can take some time to decide on so it can be helpful to do your experiment a few times before making a final decision. If it did, great! If it didn't, maybe you find something else to experiment with.
Step Five: Repeat!
As with intuitive eating as a whole there is no bumper sticker for gentle nutrition. It’s not a destination. It’s a continual process of reflecting, learning and adjusting. The difference is that at first it seems like a lot of work to intentionally do but the more you do it and get the hang of it the more autopilot it becomes.
It’s also important to note that we are meant to change as we go throughout life (our bodies, our preferences, our gentle nutrition needs, etc!) so what feels good right now might not in the future. Or, gentle nutrition may need to be added more so later on due to health needs (example: focusing more on adding plant based foods to protect heart health)
A Final Note On Gentle Nutrition
Nutrition IS important. I’m a Registered Dietitian, I know this! It’s so important that I actually have an entire stage devoted to help you learn and implement it inside of The SociEATy membership community. However, it’s not the only thing that should determine your food choices and it’s also highly individualized.
If you’re looking for “balance” with your eating then that’s essentially what gentle nutrition is. The difference between gentle nutrition and dieting, however, is that the choices come from you (the WHY of your gentle nutrition choices is SO important!) and you’re also considering your cravings and satisfaction at the same time.
What are your thoughts on gentle nutrition? Do you feel like this is the missing link in helping you find a style of intuitive eating that feels good both mentally and physically? Leave a comment below, I’d love to hear your thoughts!
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