Many people have the misconception that intuitive eating means not paying attention to nutrition at all. However, the dietitians who came up with the approach did so because they were torn between feeling unethical prescribing diets and feeling unethical not teaching nutrition at all. The final principle in the book is “Honor your Health with Gentle Nutrition,” and I find it to be such a nice way to think about nourishing your body.
Gentle nutrition refers to paying attention to nutrition, and using it as one factor to guide what you eat. However, I said one factor on purpose. We don’t live in a vacuum. We aren’t robots that just eat the same robot crackers every single day, in the same exact amounts. Is it obvious I know nothing about robots? Anyway, the point is we are complex creatures. We have our own metabolic needs, as well as different food preferences, cultures, budgets, and schedules that impact what we want to eat and are able to prepare.
If you don’t like kale (raises hand), you don’t have to! There are plenty of other vegetables out there to enjoy. Gentle nutrition acknowledges that good nutrition is important-it can make you feel better, more energized, and prevent certain diseases. But sometimes we just want a cookie, and it’s fine that it isn’t a nutrition powerhouse. There’s room for that. You are not suddenly going to get a nutrient deficiency if you go a few days without eating something green.
There’s a whole chapter on that, but I think this first line is a great summary: “Make food choices that honor your health and tastebuds while making you feel well.” They also review some basic nutrition principles, but emphasize that this is meant to be used gently, not rigidly. Of course, this looks different to everyone, but here are some examples from my life.
-Incorporating fruits, vegetables, and whole grains into my meals and snacks when possible. But if I’m just not feeling my baby carrots at lunch, I don’t have to eat them. Similarly, if I’m at a cookout and there is no produce in sight, there’s no need to panic.
-Being connected to my body so I can figure out what it needs. I know if I have just a muffin/carbohydrate for breakfast, I’ll likely be hungry pretty soon. So in that case I might pair it with an egg or another protein/fat, or just know that I need to have a snack on hand soon.
-Having whole grain pasta when it sounds good or I feel I haven’t had much fiber that day, but eating white pasta when I just want it and nothing else will satisfy me.
-Adding a vegetable to dinner if the meal we’ve planned doesn’t have one. And I’m not talking steamed vegetables with no seasoning-I prepare them in a way that tastes good to me!
-Understanding that nutrition is not one size fits all, and that what feels best in my body is different than what feels best in someone else’s. I eat dairy and meat, but maybe eating primarily plant based feels good and gentle to you. You do you.
Overall, I eat what makes me feel good and satisfied. Eating fruits and veggies makes me feel good, and so does having dessert when I want it. I lie somewhere between nutrition apathy and nutrition anxiety; it’s great to care about your nutrition and health, but when it interferes with your wellbeing as a person, that’s no good! Food is about nourishment, connection, and celebration. I don’t think there’s any need for it to consume your thoughts or interfere with your happiness.
I think the reason this is a misconception about intuitive eating is because people think, “if I listened to what I wanted to eat, I would just eat insert forbidden food here all day.” I get it-it seems counterintuitive that allowing yourself to eat whatever you want actually can lead to improved nutrition status. It can be hard to figure out how to eat healthfully if you are not following a diet or plan. (Not saying diets are healthy, just that people associate them with eating “healthy.”) That’s one reason why the authors made this the last principle at the end of the book.
If you haven’t worked toward food peace and body acceptance, it’s really difficult to practice gentle nutrition. It’s hard to think about what foods will nourish your body and taste buds if you can’t get away from thinking “this food is ‘healthy’ and will help me lose weight so that’s what I’m going to eat, even if I hate it.” In addition, at the beginning of a journey to a peaceful relationship with food, you may need to explore many of the foods you’ve restricted for so long. Or, you may have the urge to turn basic nutrition guidelines into rigid rules. That’s why the authors suggest focusing on gentle nutrition later.
I would argue that if you make it to the end of the book and work to make peace with your body and food, you won’t really “need” nutrition tips. Sure, it’s good to know basic principles in the back of your mind, but your body is really smart and will tell you what you need. If I don’t have a vegetable for a few days, I start craving them. Isn’t that so cool?! But then again, sometimes I do need to (gently) remind myself to eat some plants since I do have a picky palate and veggies aren’t always what I run to. Ok, I’m getting off topic here.
Yes, nutrition is important. But so is your health, which encompasses mental health. In my book, health includes going out for an ice cream cone and not trying to figure out how many calories it contains. It includes going out to dinner to celebrate a loved one and focusing more on conversation and the people rather than the number of vegetables on my plate. It involves including fruits and vegetables into my life because they taste good, they are health promoting, and they keep my digestive system running smoothly.
I never want to shame someone for what they’re eating, or not eating. My goal is not to convince you to eat how I do, or say there’s one right way to eat-because there isn’t. Again, what feels gentle and good differs person to person. My goal is to talk about nutrition and food in a positive and supportive way, and eventually walk alongside clients as they figure out what that looks like for them. If you’re interested in learning more, check out the intuitive eating website, find a dietitian in your area (you can search by expertise at that link), or search for a Certified Intuitive Eating Counselor near you (may or may not be a dietitian).