Gentle nutrition redefines ‘healthy’
Eating “healthy” shouldn’t feel like a chore, yet for many of us it’s extremely difficult. Why is that the case? With gentle nutrition and intuitive eating, all foods can fit into a healthy diet. Read on to learn more about how to ditch “healthy” food labels and improve your relationship with food, while still being mindful about nutrition and your health.
Have you struggled with eating “healthy”?
Many of us are taught at a young age how to identify foods as either ‘healthy’ or ‘unhealthy.’ The concept seems simple enough: ‘healthy’ foods convey health while ‘unhealthy’ foods harm health. It’s easy! Just eat ‘healthy’ foods to be healthy and happy. For example, in an effort to eat ‘healthy,’ maybe you’ve…
- Opted for ‘healthy’, ‘low calorie’, ‘low fat’, ‘low carb’ foods despite preferring the flavor and texture of the regular versions.
- Eliminated ‘unhealthy’ foods from your diet that you really enjoy because you believe that eating them causes more harm than good, and you feel guilty every time you ‘indulge.’
- Stuck to strict, repetitive ‘healthy’ meal plans even though they leave you feeling hungry, low-energy, and moody.
If any of this sounds familiar, and even frustrating, you are not alone– nor are you at fault. You care about your health! And you’ve made these choices because you were told this was the best way to achieve it. But I believe you’re here now because, despite making these decisions you were told were ‘healthy’, your diet has left you feeling more confused and dissatisfied than ever.
Why “healthy” food labels are problematic
The truth is, approaching foods as strictly ‘healthy’ or ‘unhealthy’ is problematic for a lot of reasons:
- ‘Healthy vs unhealthy’ is very black and white. It paints certain foods as either medicine or poison—that, for example, a ‘dose’ of kale will heal you, and a ‘dose’ of butter will kill you. Complicated nutrition science is often overly simplified to make foods fit neatly into the ‘healthy’ or ‘unhealthy’ category when there is actually a lot of gray area.
- ‘Healthy’ has also become a moving target. One day bread is ‘wholesome, enriched, and fortified’ and the next it ‘contains fattening carbs and gluten.’ Whether or not a food is ‘healthy’ might depend more on who you ask than the actual food itself.
- ‘Healthy vs unhealthy’ also promotes restriction. We know that over time, restriction leads to overeating and weight cycling.
- We also know that when guilt is associated with certain foods, the act of eating can become needlessly mentally exhausting and emotionally taxing. Too much emphasis is put on feeling guilty and too little emphasis placed on the sensory quality of foods and the pleasurable aspects of eating.
- In the long term, any approach to eating that demonizes some foods while celebrating others will cloud our innate ability to eat intuitively.
Intuitive eating and gentle nutrition
Gentle nutrition is the last step of practicing intuitive eating. Gentle nutrition acknowledges that good nutrition is an important aspect of our overall health, but that it is far from black and white. Instead of using ‘healthy’ to describe specific foods that are ‘safe’ to our health, gentle nutrition defines ‘healthy’ as eating a variety of foods while encouraging a healthy relationship with all foods. ‘Healthy’ eating with gentle nutrition focuses on feeling good physically and mentally without imposing strict rules about what foods must be included and excluded from your diet. With gentle nutrition no food is inherently ‘healthy’ or ‘unhealthy’ because all foods can fit.
7 tenants of gentle nutrition for intuitive eating
Variety is key
‘Healthy vs unhealthy’ made you believe that eliminating certain foods was the best way to ensure your diet was ‘healthy.’ However, it is worse for your health to eliminate foods and eat the same things every day than it is to incorporate a variety of all foods all the time. With gentle nutrition, all foods are allowed—there is no reason to restrict or deprive yourself of any single foods or whole food groups. Not sure how to incorporate more variety into your meals? Our book Nourished: 10 Ingredients to Happy, Healthy Eating is filled with customizable recipes for every meal to feed your creativity in the kitchen.
Moderation, not portion control
If moderation to you sounds like measuring cups and food scales, then you’ve definitely been prey to diet-culture. What moderation really means is eating enough food to feel satisfied—not too much, and not too little. Intuitive eaters that focus on incorporating variety while also listening to their hunger cues are likely already eating foods in moderation—no fancy tools required. With gentle nutrition, you also don’t need to feel guilty for over-eating or under-eating– because gentle nutrition recognizes that you won’t always get it right. Over time, these experiences help you learn how to honor your hunger and fullness cues. Gentle nutrition emphasizes progress, not perfection.
Eat foods that make you feel good
Food affects how we feel physically. I love traditional Thanksgiving dinner foods, but given the choice, I would not eat them for lunch every day because I know they make me feel tired and sluggish and I would have a difficult time getting my work done for the rest of the afternoon. I also really enjoy my morning latte, but know that if I drink more than one I will feel jittery and nauseous. While no foods are technically off-limits, gentle nutrition encourages you to make informed choices about when and how much you have of them to honor how they make your body feel.
Stop compromising taste in the name of health
While I would argue that a lot of nutritious foods taste very good, I would also argue that a lot of ‘healthy’ foods (foods labeled as such because they’ve been re-imagined without the specific ingredients that make them ’unhealthy’) taste really really bad (I see you low-calorie ice cream pints and powdered peanut butter).
It is possible to eat foods that taste good while also considering nutrition. As you incorporate gentle nutrition, check in with yourself periodically with some questions like “Am I eating this because I like the taste or because I think it’s ‘healthy’?” and “Will I choose to eat this food again, and why?” Practicing mindful eating at meal time may help you become more in-tune with these thoughts.
Food quality is important, but you don’t have to follow a meal plan
Gentle nutrition looks different for everyone because the goal is to choose a variety of foods that taste good and feel good to eat. Not clear on what variety looks like in action? Our Rebel Plate provides us with a jumping off point. Rebel Plate helps us envision how to incorporate all the food groups into a meal, but also how many other factors affect our relationship with food other than just the nutrient composition. The foods you include that taste good and feel good to eat are still up to you. Will every meal be perfectly portioned to include all the food groups all the time? Absolutely not, and that’s OK. Balance, variety, and moderation happen over time, not just one meal.
Fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and lean proteins are nutritious additions to any diet.
Again, when choosing to incorporate these foods into your diet, they should be foods that taste good, are satisfying, and make you feel good. Sometimes chocolate and French fries fit that bill more than salmon and brussel sprouts—and that’s not only OK, it’s expected. The key is that it’s not all or nothing.
‘Healthy’ happens over time, not over one meal
Your health is an average of your diet and lifestyle over time, not just one meal. All the components I’ve discussed—variety, moderation, feel, taste, and quality—work together to help you make sustainable, informed choices about the diet that best suits you and your health over long periods of time.
Examples of intuitive eating and gentle nutrition in action:
- Feeling like having waffles with syrup for breakfast and choosing to top them with fresh berries, not because you feel have to include fruit with every meal, but because the berries look plump and tasty.
- Asking a coworker to split a donut with you, not because the donut is ‘unhealthy’, but because eating very sugary foods in the afternoon gives you a headache, and having just ½ will adequately satisfy your taste without the pain later.
- Taking home half of your delicious spaghetti and meatball dinner from the restaurant, not because you’re afraid the portion was too large, but because you ate until you were satisfied and you would like to eat some more for lunch tomorrow.
- Switching from taking salads to work for lunch every day to taking sandwiches instead because eating salad does not fill you up and makes you feel deprived.
- Choosing to prepare brown rice with dinner, not because you read that brown rice is better for you than white rice, but because you see it as an opportunity to increase your fiber intake for the day OR choosing to prepare white rice with dinner because you dislike the taste and texture of brown rice and are confident that you can incorporate fiber elsewhere in your diet.
Kristin Jenkins, MS, RD is a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist. Her passion for nutrition blossomed from her own experience and her aspiration to help others who may be facing similar challenges.