An intuitive eater consumes a variety of foods that make their body feel good—mindful of hunger and fullness cues. There are no off-limit foods. Emotions aren’t numbed by food. And food rules are no longer in effect. That means there is no more “good food” vs. “bad food.” Instead, food is eaten for physical function and overall health.
- Catherine Karnatz, RD, registered dietitian, health writer, and founder of Nutrition Education RD
- Christine Milmine, RDN, registered dietitian nutritionist at Plant Powered You
- Eden Davis, RDN, registered dietitian nutritionist and co-owner of Pearl Wellness
- Julie Pace, RDN, registered dietitian nutritionist at Core Nutrition Health+Wellness
- Kayley Myers, RDN, registered dietitian nutritionist
- Kelsey Kunik, RD
- Rebecca Jaspan, MPH, RD, CEDS, CDCES, registered dietitian
We know that certain foods have a multitude of health benefits. However, if you’re healing your relationship with food, you may be fearful of slipping back into the diet trap. How do you improve your overall diet quality without restriction? Part of that process, when practicing intuitive eating, includes embracing the principle of gentle nutrition.
Dieting tends to give us an all-or-nothing attitude. You’re on or you’re off. You eat all of the nutrient-rich and nourishing foods, or you have a cheat day (or week…or month) and eat nothing but ultra-processed foods.
When you are healing from a diet mentality, incorporating nutrition can be tricky. Julie Pace, RDN, registered dietitian nutritionist at Core Nutrition Health+Wellness suggests embracing a mindful, holistic, anti-diet approach to nutrition. “One way to do this is to focus on incorporating foods that nourish your body and empower you to feel your best,” she says.
Intuitive eating is all about experimentation and exploration. You are viewing food through new eyes. No longer are foods considered punishment or reward, but you are fueling your body for optimal health and wellness. “This may involve exploring a variety of nutrient-dense foods, experimenting with different cooking methods, or simply practicing mindfulness,” Pace says.
Upgrade your anti-diet approach to nutrition effortlessly with these 5 strategies
1. Eat breakfast
Breakfast has gotten a bad rap from intermittent fasting fans. As it turns out, ignoring your hunger half of the day shouldn’t be worn like a badge of honor. In fact, skipping breakfast is associated with heart disease1, high blood pressure2, increased risk of type 2 diabetes3, and cancer4.
Anti-diet dietitian, Kelsey Kunik, RDN at Graciously Nourished, recommended starting the day with a high-protein and high-fiber breakfast. “Breakfast is a great way to stay full and energized throughout the morning," she says. "It can also help prevent overeating later in the day, which can be triggered by skipping meals and letting yourself get too hungry."
2. Try simple swaps
No need to give up the foods you love. Instead, try new ways to make an old favorite. You can often swap ingredients to provide more health benefits—without compromising flavor. Some examples of swaps include:
- Milk and natural sweeteners instead of coffee creamer: Coffee is a drink many can’t do without. And according to market research, only 25 percent of people drink their coffee black. That means the rest are adding some sort of creamer or flavor enhancer. Flavored creamers are extremely popular but come with a list of ingredients that may be questionable (i.e., hydrogenated oil and artificial flavors). You don’t have to give up your morning brew. Try simple ingredients to spruce up your coffee, like organic half-and-half with coconut sugar or oat milk and maple syrup.
- Whole grain instead of white: The dietary fiber found in whole grains like brown rice, whole-grain bread, oatmeal, and whole-wheat pasta has numerous benefits, including aiding in digestion and preventing constipation. In addition, consumption of whole grains has been found to lower the risk of cancer5. Many whole grain products can be swapped for their refined counterparts without changing the taste. Replace white rice with brown rice in your stir-fry. Give whole-wheat bow-tie noodles a try in your next pasta salad.
- Greek yogurt for regular yogurt: Greek yogurt is a great source of probiotics that are essential for gut health. When compared to regular yogurt, Greek yogurt has over twice the amount of protein and almost half of the carbs. You can also use plain Greek yogurt in place of sour cream, something to keep in mind next time you're making a dip or chili.
3. Combine nutrients when snacking
It’s easy to grab a banana or a cheese stick and be on your way. But choosing to eat just one food group for a meal or snack may leave you lacking. Just because it’s a snack doesn’t mean that you have to skip a food group. Eating a combination of macronutrients—carbohydrates, fat, and protein—is satiating and helps give you the energy you need for focus and activity.
“I always recommend pairing two foods like carbohydrates and protein or protein and fat. This combination helps ensure you're getting enough nutrients and will give you staying power until your next meal,” says dietitian, Rebecca Jaspan, MPH, RD, CEDS, CDCES. Her favorite combos are crackers and cheese, apple and peanut butter, or fruit and nuts.
4. Honor your cravings
Food cravings are a normal part of life. Since there are no forbidden or off-limit foods in intuitive eating, you are free to eat whatever you’re craving. Furthermore, you can use it as an opportunity to get some beneficial nutrients. “You can enhance nutrition by focusing on variety, balance, and applying gentle nutrition," says Eden Davis, RDN LDN, co-founder of Pearl Wellness Practice.
So what does that look like? You simply blend the craving with nutrition. Let’s take a chocolate craving for instance. “We know the chocolate will satisfy our taste buds, but won't necessarily provide satiety and nutrients. We can add a fruit like coconut to this snack to pack in more nutrients, staying power, and balance,” Davis says.
5. Add in nutrient-packed foods
When you are trying to improve your nutrition, addition is key. “Look for ways to incorporate nutrients into your meals rather than avoiding certain foods,” said dietitian Kayley Myers, RDN. Well-studied diet patterns, like the Mediterranean diet, have informed us about what foods promote health and prevent disease. You can add those foods and reap the benefits without cutting calories, carbs, or points.
What's more, food can be chosen based on your personal needs, preferences, and the benefits you want. For example, “People looking to reduce inflammation can add antioxidant-rich foods to their meals and snacks, such as berries, sweet potatoes, or green tea," Meyers says. "This can help shift your focus to using food as a means to care for your body.”
It doesn’t have to be complicated. If you're looking to up your fruit and vegetable intake, start small by adding one serving to one meal or snack each day, says Catherine Karnatz, MPH, RD. “This could look like blending a handful of frozen fruit into your morning smoothie or adding canned beans to your favorite soup recipe," she says.
Look at the big picture
Improving the quality of your diet doesn’t need to be done on a timeline. Give yourself grace and accept that some days will have better nutrition than others. That’s completely normal. “If you are working on adding in more nutrient-dense foods, it's important to not get stuck on one meal or day,” says Christine Milmine, RDN, registered dietitian nutritionist at Plant Powered You. “Instead, consider focusing on incorporating longer-lasting healthy habits into your overall eating pattern.”
The process of becoming an intuitive eater is a journey. It takes a while to unlearn the food rules and associations we have with dieting. But making peace with food and choosing foods that honor your body will be worth it.
- Rong, Shuang et al. “Association of Skipping Breakfast With Cardiovascular and All-Cause Mortality.” Journal of the American College of Cardiology vol. 73,16 (2019): 2025-2032. doi:10.1016/j.jacc.2019.01.065
- Li, Zishuo et al. “Skipping Breakfast Is Associated with Hypertension in Adults: A Meta-Analysis.” International journal of hypertension vol. 2022 7245223. 3 Mar. 2022, doi:10.1155/2022/7245223
- Ballon, Aurélie et al. “Breakfast Skipping Is Associated with Increased Risk of Type 2 Diabetes among Adults: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis of Prospective Cohort Studies.” The Journal of nutrition vol. 149,1 (2019): 106-113. doi:10.1093/jn/nxy194
- Helo, Dena et al. “The association of skipping breakfast with cancer-related and all-cause mortality in a national cohort of United States adults.” Cancer causes & control : CCC vol. 32,5 (2021): 505-513. doi:10.1007/s10552-021-01401-9
- Gaesser, Glenn A. “Whole Grains, Refined Grains, and Cancer Risk: A Systematic Review of Meta-Analyses of Observational Studies.” Nutrients vol. 12,12 3756. 7 Dec. 2020, doi:10.3390/nu12123756
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