A Gentle Case For Gentle Nutrition
By: Masha Sardari MS, RD, LDN
Published: November 3, 2023

The first thing to say about gentle nutrition? It is not a diet. If anything, it’s an anti-diet.

Second, though I’m a big believer in this way of eating and thinking about food, it’s not for everyone. I’m not going to tell you it’s the only way to go. That’s the kind of black and white thinking that can get us into trouble in the first place.

Enter gentle nutrition.

The concept comes out of the Intuitive Eating program first introduced in 1995 by nutrition experts Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch. Intuitive eating includes 10 principles, the final one being all about gentle nutrition.

Simply put, gentle nutrition encourages you to make food choices based on (1) a food’s nutritional value, and (2) your body’s innate cues regarding what it needs. Another way of saying it: Gentle nutrition, or GN, considers your desires along with your nutritional needs. Also, GN focuses on and is guided by self-care, not self-control.

Here are six things to know about gentle nutrition.

One: It’s important to understand some things before you start with GN.

Though GN becomes intuitive and in fact easy to do, you may need to learn some new ways of thinking about food and nutrition before that happens. It’s also best to be in a balanced overall health state before starting this way of eating.

For example, here at Koru Spring, we talk with our residents about the non-diet approach, essential nourishment, mindful eating, and honoring the body and mind through nutrition. We cover concepts like:

  • Food is not a way to manipulate or control.
  • Food has no underlying moral character—it is neither good or bad.
  • Food is a helpful, necessary, enjoyable thing.

We also try to move our residents away from the thinking that you’re bad because you enjoy food or certain types of food. Or you’re good because you only eat salads. That kind of moralizing about food is just not necessary or appropriate.

Suffice it to say, we cover a lot of ground before introducing our residents to GN. Which is why we always say it’s best to work with a dietician or nutritionist with expertise in GN before starting to eat this way, especially if you have a history of disordered eating or eating disorders.

Two: It’s about finding balance.

I mean this in several ways. Three, actually.

First, it’s important to be in a balanced state before starting your GN journey. In the eating disorder world, this means getting to a healthy, stable weight. Mentally, it means not approaching GN as a diet. Maybe above all, it’s about making peace with food.

Second, as I mentioned earlier, GN is about finding a balance of foods that you desire and that provide nutritional value. That includes eating foods simply because they are pleasurable.

Third, GN is about balancing and honoring your physical, mental, and emotional needs so they’re in alignment when you eat. For example, eating bland chicken breasts every day, even though you don’t like the taste, is putting yourself in an unbalanced state. Whereas eating seasoned, stir-fried vegetables that taste good and make you feel good—that’s balance.

Three: It’s open-minded.

I love working with our Koru Spring residents on food choices and meal preparation. When you hit your stride with gentle nutrition and things are clicking at the grocery store and in the kitchen, you act on pure curiosity.

What tastes good? What goes well with this type of meat? How about if I use that yummy herb with this vegetable? When this is happening, there are no moral attachments, no anxiety, and no negativity about food. It’s just pure, open-minded joy.

Four: It evolves as you evolve.

Gentle nutrition is always flexible, and never prescriptive. There are no rigid rules about numbers, percentages, or calorie counting.

Again, GN is about eating nutritious foods that taste good that you naturally gravitate to once your body is attuned to what it wants and needs.

And what it wants and needs will change over time. That’s fine! If you’re ready to incorporate more joyful movement in your days, for example, your GN way of eating will adjust to that and honor that.

For a person living with diabetes whose body requires support to process carbohydrates, you’ll naturally choose foods that align with that. If you become pregnant, your nutritional needs will be different, and your body will let you know which foods work best. And so on.

Five: It is wonderfully imperfect.

Many people, especially those with an eating disorder, chase perfection. The perfect diet. The perfect body. The perfect job or relationship. The perfect life.

But what happens is, even if you believe you have achieved that perfect body, diet, or life, in fact you often become the worst version of yourself. Or a warped version of yourself. Which isn’t healthy, it doesn’t make you happy, and regardless it isn’t sustainable.

GN has nothing to do with “perfection thinking.” It takes a lot of practice and patience at first, but the goal is never perfection. GN looks different for different people. There’s nothing strict or rigid about it. It’s about eating what you want, and enjoying it.

Six: It’s intuitive.

A caveat here. GN is not necessarily intuitive at first. That’s because many of us reach a point in life whereby our food and body perceptions—and even things like whether we’re hungry or not—become less clear. That’s when it’s time to make some adjustments, and begin to lean into your intuition.

The key with intuitive eating principles and GN is to tap into our body’s innate wisdom. On the biological level, your body has knowledge about the food/nutrition it wants and needs. You simply need to listen to it. Once you get comfortable doing that, gentle nutrition becomes second nature.

But back to hunger for a second. Many people with eating disorders lose the sense of what hunger means, or what to do about it.

With the residents I see who are dealing with this level of disorientation about hunger, I often make the analogy of getting tired. When we become tired, we know we need to nap, or go to bed for the night. Same thing with hunger. When you feel hunger, you need to eat. GN helps you do that. It guides you on what foods to reach for when you recognize that you’re hungry.

Final thoughts

Food can be so stressful these days. Which is crazy when you think about it. Food tastes good. It gives us pleasure. It brings people together at the table. It’s an amazing window into other cultures. And we need it to stay alive. How did all the negativity come into it?

I don’t know the complete answer to that, but the media (including social media) is a major culprit. The media is constantly fear-mongering food. It is constantly giving diet-culture advice that we don’t need.

Gentle nutrition helps you tune out all that chatter, stress, and negativity. It shows you how to look inward instead, to your own body and what it needs and desires. It allows you to get spontaneously joyful about food again.

It’s about time, don’t you think?

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