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In the process of re-learning how to eat intuitively gentle nutrition is typically left until other key pieces are in place. Meaning that we’ve accepted that diet culture doesn’t serve us, are regularly tapping into our hunger and fullness and honouring these signals, treating our body kindly, moving it in ways that feel good and eating foods that satisfy us, unconditionally. For lots of us the messages we get about nutrition tend to come from diet culture or are tagged onto messages about weight maintenance (think: “it’s okay to eat chocolate just only 2 squares of dark chocolate after a meal”). This basically ties healthy eating up with dieting, meaning incorporating what we know about nutrition in a non-diet way can be tough!
Messages about nutrition too soon in the intuitive eating journey can be interpreted as hard and fast rules (i.e. dieting) instead of loose, flexible suggestions which can fit into the context of your life in a way that’s enjoyable for you – see the difference? The way it’s put in the book Intuitive Eating is...
“If a healthy relationship with food is not in place, it’s difficult to truly pursue healthy eating. If you’ve been a chronic dieter, the best nutrition guidelines can still be embraced like a diet.”
Gentle nutrition recognises that in order to have a healthy, sustainable diet you must have both a healthy relationship with food AND a balanced, varied diet. We can all improve the variety and balance of our diets but this doesn’t have to come with rules or ‘have tos’, we can find a way to try out different ingredients, meals, snacks and recipes in whatever way works for us! The rest of this blog highlights what I think are the key points to remember when considering gentle nutrition.
Really examine your beliefs around nutrition – do some research and see if you can find where they come from or who advocates for these kinds of eating practices (i.e. journalists, bloggers, celebrities vs. healthcare and nutrition professionals). Really tune in to how foods make your body feel, this information is golden and gives us a relevant, useful idea of what our needs are moment to moment - check in with your energy levels, mood, how your gut is feeling, satisfaction and contentment.
Be honest with yourself, does broccoli or cheesecake really make your body feel good in any given situation? Is your decision based on self-care or self-control?
Do we need to micromanage nutrition, creating the perfect balance of nutrients in every single meal? Short answer, no. Diet culture and much of nutrition messaging focuses on individual foods, or worse individual nutrients which must be paid excessive attention in order for your diet to be healthy. When we look at the research around the eating patterns that are most beneficial for health we see that it's not important what we eat on any given day or week, it's what we eat in the long-run that counts.
This takes the pressure off making every single meal or snack the perfect balance of nutrients - our body functions just fine as long as it gets all the nutrients it needs over time. This can also help protect you the next time you hear about the latest superfood you must eat for good health or food to avoid in fear of sudden illness - you can be reassured you don't have to implement every latest fad in order to have good health.
If you’re regularly listening to your hunger and fullness and choosing foods based on what your body wants then you should be getting most of what you need. When thinking about current nutrition recommendations getting as much variety in your diet as is doable for you can be helpful. This should help make sure you’re getting all the right mix of nutrients needed.
Think about adding in instead of taking out though. This helps us increase the range of nutrients in our diet in a way that doesn't restrict us. Try out new recipes or cuisines or switch up your shopping list so you're not just buying the same foods every week. Consider multiple food groups when deciding on meals and snacks. For example, instead of toast with butter and jam which might not be the most filling, try adding nut butter and a banana to up the fibre and protein content, while delivering more micronutrients too. This is also likely to be more filling and satisfying.
It's okay to incorporate some gentle, supportive structure into your eating patterns, just keep in mind the benefits of flexibility within this. Gentle structure can especially help if it reduces stress around what you'll be eating and make you feel prepared. If making some time to think about meals or snacks for the week is something that you'd find helpful, go for it! You just don't have to have tupperware filled with meals for every day of the week either.
Try to think about a source of protein and a source of carbohydrates or fibre as a base and build from there, adding in extra elements for taste, fat, fun, variety and satisfaction. Some folks find it helpful to have some staples in the house which you can then build upon with different ingredients to create quick, easy meals and snacks when you're short on time.
Are there foods you haven’t eaten for a while because of beliefs about disliking them? Try to include one new food each week, keeping a journal of which foods you’ve tried and your thoughts on them. This can help you to work out which foods you really do or don't like and those that you're maybe indifferent about.
Bear in mind that there are always alternate ways to get the right amounts of nutrients. For example, if you really don’t like wholegrain bread that’s absolutely fine, don't force yourself to eat it! Fibre can be found in a range of other foods such as pulses, nuts, seeds, fruit, veg and grains. Never feel like you have to beat yourself up if your food preferences don’t fit standard expectations of a ‘healthy diet’.
Remember that there's no such thing as an inherently unhealthy or healthy food. All foods that you enjoy have a place in your diet depending on your body's needs, context and your tastes and satisfaction. Level the playing field of foods by giving yourself unconditional permission to eat. This takes previously restricted foods off their pedestal, making them less enticing and exciting. No one food has the power to grant you good health or make you pile on weight.
One common question you see a lot when talking about intuitive eating and gentle nutrition is “But what about my health? Don’t I have to carefully manage my diet to keep disease at bay and live longer?!” Sure the foods we eat play a role in determining our risk of disease and keeping us healthy but once we’ve got the basics (general healthy eating advice to eat more plants, get enough water, eat a variety of foods) it’s doubtful that micromanaging our food will actually improve our health that much, if at all.
There are so many other determinants of health and the stress of worrying about food can actually do more damage in the long-term than good. We can’t escape all disease forever and that’s just a part of life. So instead enjoying what we eat and removing worry about food can be so much more beneficial for a rewarding and fulfilling life, that will inevitably contain moments of ill health. It’s also perfectly possible to manage chronic health conditions (e.g. T2D, PCOS, IBS etc) through the non-diet lens. If you’d like more information about how intuitive eating can help you manage a health condition, scroll down and select 'Click Here' to book in a free discovery call.