It is undeniable that nutrition plays an integral role in overall wellbeing. “We are what we eat,” right? Year after year, new science emerges about how beneficial certain nutrients are for inflammation, cardiovascular health, hormone balancing, etc. The composition of meals is also an essential aspect of managing blood sugar imbalances, like insulin resistance and diabetes. So what is the difference between gentle nutrition and all other nutrition talk?
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Gentle nutrition is the tenth principle of Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch’s (2012) Intuitive Eating principles that practice more self-awareness and self-compassion in making choices that honor wellbeing. In a society where fad diets are a dime a dozen, it can be challenging for people to discern what diet is best for them. The catch with gentle nutrition focuses on health, not on weight.
Intuitive Eating – What is it?
Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch are two registered dieticians pioneering the concept of the anti-diet approach to health through their book Intuitive Eating. The authors embrace an anti-diet mentality because of the negative implications dieting can have on a person’s physical, mental, and emotional wellbeing. Some fad diets lead to nutrient imbalances, and they can also lower metabolism. Additionally, they are hard to sustain for long term, resulting in rebound weight gain. Weight loss followed by weight gain in cycles, called yo-yo dieting, has been associated with increased all-cause mortality than just being in a larger body. What does that mean? It means it is potentially more dangerous to lose and gain weight over and over than to maintain a stable weight. Aside from physical harm, many people have feelings of low self-worth, low self-compassion, and other negative beliefs about themselves when they pursue dieting. Dieting doesn’t change the negative thoughts and behaviors about ourselves, which contributes to the vicious on-again-off-again cycles. You can pick up your copy of Intuitive Eating here.
Why gentle nutrition?
In my signature program, The Heart of Eating, I choose to operate in the space of gentle nutrition to maintain long-term sustainability for my client’s health goals. It’s common to hear folks start a wellness journey and fall off the wagon for numerous reasons. I don’t want there to be a wagon to fall off! By taking away the feelings of restrictions and learning to listen to our bodies (and respond accordingly), I find clients can make better decisions for their wellness that resonate with feeling good within their body and mind.
In my experience, everyone benefits from gentle nutrition! We are humans living a very real and sometimes chaotic experience in this world. Life will throw us curveballs, and we must learn to adapt. Gentle nutrition allows us to be adaptable with our eating. Unlike many fad diets, which are mainly focused on losing weight as a health outcome, the flexibility of gentle nutrition allows you to be in control over your wellness. It involves observing your thoughts and feelings around food and how food feels in your body. It will enable you to honor your physical experience with food, from satisfying the hunger to pleasing the palate. It removes a moral burden from eating (you are not good or bad for eating certain foods) while embracing appreciation and respect for your body.
How to practice gentle nutrition…
We learn gentle nutrition by learning food-body harmony, exploring what motivates your food choices, and pairing those concepts with nutrition science. Let’s break these down a little further.
Food-body Harmony – what does that mean?
By now, you may have picked up that I am a firm believer in listening to your body. It will tell you what it needs when we are attentive to it. Food-body harmony is the ability to listen and responds to what your body is telling you when you eat. Let me ask you a question, and take some time to ponder it if you need to: when you feel like crap, does it change your experience with food? Of course, it does! Even the tastiest foods don’t hit the satisfaction mark when we feel bad.
When we set wellness goals, we want to be able to feel good enough to enjoy the things we like to do, even if that means feeling good enough to enjoy our favorite treats. Some people want to have more energy. Others may want to make food choices that satisfy hunger for longer than an hour. Still, other people may need increased nutrient intake from certain foods. By listening to how food feels in our bodies, we can make the adjustments necessary to meet our end goals.
Let’s use the example:
“I want to make choices for breakfast that will give me energy and keep me fuller longer. I had a plain yogurt for breakfast and felt hungry and tired in an hour, and I wanted to snack on everything!”
The second part of that sentence is the beginning of listening to your body. Your plain yogurt didn’t leave you feeling satisfied. Here are some questions using gentle nutrition to help remedy this dilemma:
1. How does eating eggs instead make you feel?
2. What if you paired your yogurt with mixed berries and walnuts?
3. What are other breakfast foods you have explored, and how do they feel when you eat them? Do you like those feelings better than how you felt with just the yogurt?
4. What food combinations meet your goal of sustainable energy?
These are just a few sample questions to get you started with bringing curious awareness to how you can modify your food choices to meet your goals by being aware of how food feels when you eat.
The topic of motivation is a hard one to cover in gentle nutrition alone. In my heart-centered nutrition approach to wellness, we learn how to align our intentions of eating to be more heart-centered and loving, as opposed to being in a negative mind space. We tend to carry a lot of resentment around eating healthily and sometimes even look at it as a punishment for something we have done wrong. Unfortunately, this step in gentle nutrition is not the easiest step to overcome if our intentions are still from a place of punishment. The Heart of Eating program helps rebuild healthier relationships with food and works towards putting an end to that internal battle we have around eating.
Here is an exercise you can do on your own when you are in a safe place to think, preferably when trying to make food choices for yourself. There is no right or wrong answer to the following question in this exercise, but it allows you to explore your relationship with food. Are you ready?
What is your motivation for making your food choice?
Sit with that for a minute. What is your driving force, reasoning, and desire to make the food choice that you made? Was it nutritional value only? Was it taste? What feelings arise from your answers to those questions?
Again, there isn’t a right or wrong answer here, however – if you find yourself choosing nutritional choices because it is what you “should” be doing, and find little to no pleasure and enjoyment in doing so, or experience various levels of guilt or shame along with your food choice, then it may be an opportunity to explore deeper into how we can find balance in your relationship with food and yourself. Making food choices from a place of negative emotions can create energetic blockages in the body, eventually leading to dis-ease or a state of imbalance (not to be confused with disease or a medical diagnosis). In future blogs, we will break this down a little further, but right now, what we need to know is negative emotions trapped in the body, even as it relates to eating, can further drive us to be disconnected from our intuitive self and the ability to listen and honor our bodies.
Lastly, the art of nutrition science…
This one is straightforward and yet not simple at the same time. Nutrition science is an art as we navigate various components that help us fuel our bodies with the necessary nutrients for optimal wellness. I call it an art because piecing together countless shapes, colors, aromas, and food textures can create health masterpieces. Like art, we are given a chance to express ourselves when creating meals and menus. I am a firm believer in the healing power of food. Yet, food is only one form of nutrition. What feelings or thoughts come up for you when you hear the words “variety,” “moderation,” and “balance”? Hopefully, wonderful feelings because heart-centered nutrition incorporates all of these concepts into nutrition science to help keep you happy and healthy for the long term. Remember when I said there is no wagon to fall off! I meant it.
Sometimes restriction is necessary…
It is important to note that some people may require some level of restrictive eating for specific health conditions. A great example of this could be someone with Celiac Disease having to stay away from gluten. While these restrictions may be necessary, gentle nutrition can still be applicable because it is also learning to be compassionate for your body with your food choices.
Let’s think back to food-body harmony for just a second. If a person with Celiac eats gluten, they may experience a wide range of uncomfortable side effects. We can recognize that our body responds negatively to that food, and we don’t like to feel bad. We honor that by not eating the foods that cause discomfort, or in this example, gluten. That decision was made from a place of loving-kindness and compassion for our body's needs. Yes, gluten-containing foods taste good, but we also know other foods that don’t have gluten can taste just as good and make us feel better.
This example is just one of various reasons dietary restrictions may be necessary. Being friends with your body and offering compassion with your choices is key. There isn’t any right or wrong answer here. When a health condition requires dietary changes, we make those decisions out of compassion for our bodies. This situation is entirely different than restricting foods because of feelings of low self-worth due to our body shape or size. Gentle nutrition is practiced in a weight-neutral space, not for manipulating body size.
Final thoughts about Gentle Nutrition
Eating intuitively can be challenging to embrace in a world that gives mixed signals on nutrition. We know that nutrition is essential to a healthy body, but we want to approach it from a place that nourishes your body and your mental and emotional state. Dieting may lead to further complications in health, and doing so with negative intentions (like punishment or hatred of yourself) may create this vicious cycle that feels hard to break. If you are interested in learning more about breaking the diet cycle, listening to your body, practicing self-compassion, and becoming an intuitive eater, book your free one-on-one discovery call now for one of my nutritional coaching packages.
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Tribole, E., and Resch, E. (2012). Intuitive Eating: A Revolutionary Program that Works. New York, NY; St. Martin’s Press.