I know that you care about your health, and you want to eat well, but you’re probably also confused about what that actually looks like if you’re not dieting and if you’re trying to make peace with food. Don’t worry, I’m going to break it all down for you in this podcast episode with some really tangible and practical things that you can do to honor your health through nutrition that have nothing to do with dieting (whew!).
What is “gentle nutrition?”
Gentle nutrition is a term that comes from the book Intuitive Eating by Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch. It is the 10th principle of intuitive eating, and basically it’s referring to how we can honor our health while eating foods we enjoy. They also remind us that health and nutrition are about a big picture pattern of eating, not any single food.
Studies show that only about 40% of our health is determined by our individual behaviors – and nutrition is just one part of that. These behaviors would also include things like how much sleep we get, how we spend our time, whether or not we are consistent with taking medications as prescribed, as well as what we eat and drink. Nutrition is just one piece of this slice of the pizza.
So if you envision a pizza that represents the factors that impact your health, and was cut into 10 slices, only 4 of them represent your individual behaviors and choices. Of those 4 slices, only part of them represents nutrition. 3 of the slices of the pizza represent your genetics – meaning that genetics plays a bigger role than food in your overall health. Are we saying that nutrition doesn’t impact health? No. I’m saying it’s just one piece of the equation.
I want us to keep this big picture in mind as we talk about gentle nutrition and health. Your health is not primarily determined by what you do or don’t eat. It’s just one variable out of many. And you could eat “perfectly” (which doesn’t exist, but you know what I mean), and still have health issues.
Gentle nutrition is about looking at what your body needs in order to feel and function well. That could be related to specific health conditions or concerns, and it could also be about feeling good in general. We need to look at your personal situation in order to determine what gentle nutrition strategies make the most sense for you, because it’s going to be different for each one of us.
Where to Start With Gentle Nutrition
Let’s look at where to begin, and how to know what types of gentle nutrition you’re ready for, as well as what’s going to actually improve your health (vs what’s unnecessary and not worth worrying about).
The first and foundational step towards gentle nutrition is eating ENOUGH, and honoring your hunger. If you’re not doing this, then the details about what you’re eating doesn’t really matter. So I want you to understand that those early phases of intuitive eating where you’re allowing yourself to eat in response to hunger, and where you’re making peace with all foods, that is part of gentle nutrition, even if it feels unbalanced or unhealthy at first. Keep in mind we’re playing the long game here.
- Dieting leads to unbalanced eating behaviors, and increases risk of both malnutrition, nutrient deficiencies and binge eating
- Dieting leads to weight cycling, which correlates with overall death rates, heart disease, increased BP, increased cholesterol, increased insulin resistance and blood sugar, loss of muscle mass, and slowed metabolic rate
- Lower blood pressure, lower cholesterol, less insulin resistance, and better physical health overall
- Better body image, lower levels of depression and anxiety
- Increased fruit and vegetable intake
- More cooking at home
- More nutritional balance overall
So I want to instill in you the confidence that the gentle nutrition approach genuinely does support your health, even if it doesn’t feel like it at first. Let’s think about something – when you’re dieting and restricting and trying to eat healthy, but then you’re having cheat days or cheat meals, and you’re all over the place with food – that’s not balanced or healthy.
And when you decide to stop doing all that, and to try and listen to your body and make peace with food, it stands to reason that you’re going to want to frequently eat the things that used to be off-limits. Your body is going to want the things it’s been told you can’t have. Once your body is convinced and reassured that the food isn’t going to be taken away again, you won’t find yourself only wanting things like chips and burgers and donuts. You’ll start to crave some chicken or a salad or some fruit. Your body will ultimately communicate to you that it loves variety. But the path to get there means going through the first part where you’re eating a lot of the things that you’ve historically thought of as “unhealthy.” And I get where this is where it’s hard and slightly terrifying, but I promise you it works.
So hopefully by now you’re on board with this and you’re trusting that this will work out to be more balanced in the long run, and you’re open to continuing this process of healing your relationship with food, and being able to apply gentle nutrition with confidence and clarity.
Let’s lay out the 3 initial foundational steps of gentle nutrition:
- Stepping away from dieting. By NOT dieting you’ve already improved your health, and I know it might not feel that way, but the research overwhelmingly shows that dieting not only doesn’t work to make you healthier, it actually damages your health. So by NOT doing that you’ve taken the first important step.
- Then the next step is honoring your hunger and allowing yourself to eat ENOUGH. Let me be very clear on this – if you’re not eating enough, then what you’re eating doesn’t matter because your body is taking everything you consume to purely use it for energy just to keep you going.
The way to know if you’re eating enough is to start by proactively and intentionally providing your body with reliable and consistent opportunities to eat a satisfying amount of food, and by honoring your hunger. Some people approach intuitive eating with the goal of barely eating enough to be kind-of-sort-of satisfied, and that’s not the goal. The goal is to be well-fed, not barely-fed. THIS is gentle nutrition. Eating enough, and providing your body with meals AND snacks throughout the day, and honoring your hunger.
- Make peace with food. By allowing yourself to eat the foods that you’ve labeled as unhealthy, you are taking away their power and “charm” (which is a concept I teach inside Non-Diet Academy). Decharming these foods will allow you to eat them in quantities that don’t cause harm to your body. Therefore, doing the work to decharm them and to make peace with all foods is an act of gentle nutrition. And what’s confusing about this part is that it might look really unbalanced and feel quite unhealthy at first. But this is how we undo all the damage that dieting did to our relationship with these foods and learn how to eat them without going overboard.
Let me recap those 3 foundational steps for gentle nutrition:
- Not dieting
- Eating enough
- Making peace with food
It might take you quite some time to do these things. That’s ok. Think about how many years, and maybe even decades, you’ve spent battling food, and trying to diet or eat healthier. It’s going to take time to un-learn all of these things and to foster a new and peaceful relationship with food. You’ve got to be patient with yourself.
Determining Your Body’s Health and Nutrition Needs
From there, the next step is to assess YOUR body’s actual health needs. As a dietitian, the nutrition advice that I’d give to one person is going to be different from another person. That’s part of what makes nutrition so cool. There is no one-size-fits-all approach.
So for you, I would start by asking yourself the following questions:
- Do I have any diagnosed medical conditions? That’s where we would start – by directly addressing the health issues you actually have.
- If not, do you have any health conditions that you are worried about developing, or have a strong family history of? Things that you might be predisposed to?
- Are you following basic gentle nutrition strategies yet?
Let’s start with the basic actionable strategies. Get ready to take notes because this is where you’re going to start really leaning into gentle nutrition.
Once you’re doing the foundational things we talked about earlier in terms of eating enough, and making peace with food, now we can start to think about health, balance and variety.
My #1 gentle nutrition tip that applies to everyone is VARIETY. Eating a wide variety of food will give you a wide variety of nutrients, and that’s a wonderful thing.
From there, let’s look at both the macro- and micronutrients.
For macronutrients, I recommend making a conscious effort to combine carbohydrate, protein and fat most of the time when you eat. I go WAY more into this strategy and what it looks like inside NDA, but the overall idea is to pair different foods together to give your body quick and long-lasting energy. This will go a long way in terms of keeping your blood sugar stable, keeping you satiated for a period of time, and giving you that sense of “enoughness” when you’re eating. Because if you’re just eating something like crackers, it’s not very filling or satiating. You could down an entire sleeve of Ritz crackers and barely feel anything, since they’re primarily carbohydrate and carbs digest quickly, but if we paired those crackers with some PB or cheese now we’ve got some protein and fat which are going to signal your brain and belly that you’ve had enough and it’s going to digest more slowly and stick with you for a while.
So I’d start by making sure your meals, and most of your snacks, have a combo of foods with carb, protein and fat. Think of a turkey and cheese sandwich. The bread is carb, the meat is protein, the cheese is protein and fat, and you could add some additional fat with some mayo. And then of course pair it with some sides to make it a complete meal.
Or if you’re having pasta, that’s carb, so let’s add some protein with a meat sauce, and for some fat you could do a side salad with dressing or some broccoli with olive oil.
So that’s your first actionable strategy: combine carb, protein and fat (those are your macronutrients, and no you don’t need to track the grams unless you have a specific medical reason to do so.)
The next actionable strategy is to add in some fruits and veggies for some fiber and micronutrients. The more color and variety, the better, because that signals different nutrients, and remember your body loves having a variety of nutrients.
So throw in a fruit or veggie with most of your meals if you can. It doesn’t have to be complicated. Canned, fresh, frozen, whatever works for you. They all count, and they all add nutrients.
Don’t force yourself to choke down fruits and veggies you legitimately dislike, and give yourself permission to eat them in ways that are enjoyable. A carrot still has the same nutrients whether you eat it plain or dipped in ranch dressing. In fact, dipping it in a fat source is going to help you better absorb the fat-soluble vitamins in it. Otherwise they just pass right through you. (Which is why I’m not a fan of fat-free salad dressing because you’re missing out on a lot of the nutrition in the salad, as well as the satiety you’d get from the fat, and let’s be honest fat-free dressing tastes like crap.)
So we’ve got macronutrients and micronutrients covered.
The next actionable strategy for gentle nutrition is to add in some unsaturated fats. There is plenty of research that shows these are generally supportive of health, and that if we can swap some of our saturated fats for unsaturated fats that is beneficial for our bodies. So look for places that you can add some olive oil, canola oil, nuts, seeds, nut butter, avocado, hummus, olives, salmon, tuna. Unsaturated fats are shown to be protective and supportive for a wide range of health conditions.
For your actionable strategies we’ve got: variety, combining carb/protein/fat, adding in micronutrients and fiber with fruits and veggies, and adding in unsaturated fats.
Those are general strategies that benefit most of us. (Caveat: this isn’t true for every single human. There may be specific medical reasons why those tips don’t apply to you, and that’s what makes this topic complex and nuanced, so you may need to work with a dietitian to get a game plan that’s tailored to your needs).
Once you’ve got these basic strategies covered, then we can look at some strategies that specifically apply to your health concerns or conditions.
Remember earlier when I had you ask yourself if you have any diagnosed conditions, or if you appear to be predisposed to certain conditions? It’s these health concerns that we’d directly target with some gentle nutrition.
To give you an example of what that might look like, I have a number of clients with PCOS. Part of PCOS is usually insulin resistance, and having PCOS increases the risk of developing diabetes, so we keep an eye on A1c and blood sugar. The internet, and often doctors, will tell people with PCOS to avoid carbs, cut out gluten, do keto, and all sorts of unhelpful strategies that ultimately make things worse. I recently had someone in my FB group whose doctor told them to cut out carbs AND do intermittent fasting, and she was like holy moly that’s way too restrictive and I don’t think I can do that, especially if I also want to make peace with food, which I validated for her and I reassured her that there are many things we can do with gentle nutrition that will help PCOS that coincide with intuitive eating and don’t require avoiding carbs or doing intermittent fasting. In fact, I’d argue that those diets – especially when you’re combining them – are WAY too restrictive and are almost guaranteed to result in binging or backlash eating, which is going to be far more harmful for insulin resistance than if we can help someone eat in a way that balances their blood sugar.
Let’s say you have high blood pressure. Gentle nutrition might mean taking a look at the biggest sources of sodium in your diet, and creating some gentle boundaries or swaps with those foods, as well as adding in some potassium-rich foods because the potassium helps to counteract the impact of sodium on blood pressure.
Now, if you don’t have BP issues I would tell you not to worry about sodium and potassium. We don’t need to waste mental energy worrying about things that aren’t going to make a meaningful difference.
Because the internet is so full of nonsense information about health and nutrition, I would highly recommend that you work with an actual dietitian if you have a health condition. This is literally what we are trained to do. It’s called Medical Nutrition Therapy, and it’s where we take a look at your medical conditions and apply the evidence-based therapeutic nutrition strategies that are proven to make a positive impact. I can’t come on this podcast and give you that type of advice, I can only give you those examples which are very generic and with specific health concerns you’d want the eyes of a dietitian who is trained to look at your health history, your medications, your bloodwork, your current eating patterns, and to give you the safest and best guidance from there.
This is the type of stuff that I love drilling down on with my private clients and people in my programs. A lot of people misunderstand gentle nutrition to be about cutting out sugar, or avoiding carbs, or eating fewer calories – and that’s not how this works at all. That’s diet mentality. We’ve gotten so confused about what “healthy eating” even looks like that this can be like learning a new language. But the beautiful thing is, once you put these pieces together you’ll start to see exactly how you CAN honor your health with the non-diet and intuitive eating approach.
I had a past NDA client tell me recently how she went to the doctor and all of her bloodwork had improved from the last time she was there, and it was SO cool for her to see and trust that what she’s been working on in her relationship with food truly is supporting her body’s needs.
I have another NDA client who has a strong family history of cardiac issues, high blood pressure and strokes. And when her doctor recommended BP medication for her it was really upsetting and discouraging at first, but as we talked through how she’s not only got the genetic predisposition to these things, but also that it would quite literally be dangerous for her to walk around unmedicated with high BP, she was willing to add in the medication and work on reframing it as a tool for health and self-care. And that didn’t mean that we ignored nutrition. We also worked on some of those gentle nutrition strategies, as well as other lifestyle things that help with BP (because it’s not all about food) – things like managing stress, getting enough sleep, being physically active. Once she embraced that she can address her health from many angles, she felt less pressure to eat “perfectly” which she knew wasn’t possible anyway.
So I hope that this gives you an idea of what gentle nutrition actually looks like and some strategies that you feel like you can play around with. I want to encourage you NOT to try and implement all of this at once. That would be a very diet-y thing to do. Instead, focus on one step at a time. Let yourself get used to small changes along the way. And keep in mind that honoring your hunger and having peace with food is the foundation for all of this, because if you start restricting and depriving yourself it’s going to backfire.
If you are feeling excited or curious about gentle nutrition and what that might look like for you, Non-Diet Academy would be the perfect next step to get in there and work on how to balance health and food freedom while under my wing, and alongside others who are on the same journey. Being able to have that expert guidance and support, along with a community is the fastest and most effective way to find freedom with food while also honoring your health. So if you’re thinking about it and want to chat or sneak in early and get a special bonus, shoot me a DM on FB or IG.
That’s all for today.
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