‘Gentle Nutrition’ is the Final Principle of Intuitive Eating, and It’s All About Honoring Your Body

Photo: Stocksy/Lucas Ottone
When some people hear the term “intuitive eating,” they imagine the bonkers myth that it means eating pizza and cookies all day. And for some folks starting their intuitive eating journey, meals may look like that (which is okay!), especially if they’ve been depriving themselves of those foods.

However, that’s not quite what intuitive eating is. In short, it’s a way of eating that pays attention to what your body—not society—is telling you it needs and wants. It says “no” to things like dieting, shaming yourself for eating certain foods, using food as a sole coping skill, or eating what and how much you think you “should.”

Experts In This Article

Created by registered dietitians Evelyn Tribole, MS, RD, CEDRD-S and Elyse Resch, MS, RD, CEDS-S, authors of Intuitive Eating: A Revolutionary Anti Diet Approach, intuitive eating is a weight-inclusive, evidence-based framework. It’s a way to respect and trust your body.

When you allow yourself to eat intuitively, you’ll probably find that you don’t want just one type of food all day, or that you actually are fine without dessert for this particular meal because it’s not forbidden anymore. Intuitive eating helps you become less obsessed with food so you can live a more full life. According to a compilation of 24 studies, intuitive eating is associated with less disordered eating, improved body image, greater emotional functioning, and more.

When you break it down, intuitive eating has 10 core principles. Those principles include rejecting the diet mentality, honoring your hunger, making peace with food, challenging the “food police,” respecting your fullness, discovering the satisfaction factor, honoring your feelings without using food, respecting your body, exercising in ways you enjoy and that make you feel good, and—you guessed it—honoring your health with “gentle nutrition.”

Wondering what that last one means? Two anti-diet dietitians are here to fill you in with more details and tips on how to implement it.

What does “gentle nutrition” mean?

“Gentle nutrition is about giving your body the nutrients it needs without restricting or micromanaging your food intake, and while also eating foods that feel tasty and satisfying,” says Christine Byrne, MPH, RD, a Raleigh-based dietitian who specializes in eating disorders.

In short, it’s all about flexibility. “Contrary to what many people have been led to believe, you don’t have to be super rigid and controlled about what you eat in order to give your body the nutrients it needs in the amounts it needs them,” Byrne says.

Avoiding putting too much pressure on the “nutrition” part is important, too—especially at first and if you’ve struggled with dieting or disordered eating. “Gentle nutrition is the last principle of intuitive eating for a reason,” says Byrne.

Hence why it's important to note that gentle nutrition is not the primary focus of intuitive eating. “We are all bombarded with messages of diet culture, whether from friends, family, the media, or healthcare professionals,” says Anna Lutz, MPH, RD, LDN, CEDRD-S, a dietitian with Lutz, Alexander & Associates Nutrition Therapy in North Carolina. “The other nine principles help us focus on moving away from diet culture. It’s only then can we use the science of nutrition in a nurturing, caring way for ourselves.”

In short, think nutrition without rigidity, shame, or fear. Gentle nutrition is about adding foods, not restricting them.

When to implement gentle nutrition (and when to pause it)

So at what point can you healthily incorporate this without triggering disordered eating habits? “Once you’re able to eat what you want without feeling guilty and tune into your own hunger, fullness, and cravings, then you’re ready to add in some gentle nutrition,” Byrne says.

But keep in mind, it’s a delicate step, especially if you’ve struggled with your relationship with food. If you’ve experienced disordered eating or don’t feel confident in the other nine principles of intuitive eating yet, you may want to wait until you feel more set with them and can work with a trained expert. And that’s perfectly okay.

Byrne encourages working with a professional, especially if you worry gentle nutrition could become strict for you. “Gentle nutrition can be fraught for folks with a history of eating disorders or disordered eating, because these folks are more likely to turn flexible guidelines into strict rules,” Byrne says. “If you have a history of disordered eating, I recommend seeking out a dietitian and/or a therapist—if you haven't already—to help you heal your relationship with food in a way that feels empowering, not triggering.”

Lutz describes what that might look like. “Before working on the principle of gentle nutrition with a client, I would assess how they are doing with the other principles, have they truly left the food police behind, are they allowing themselves to honor their hunger and feel their fullness, to name a few,” she says. “If a person is still using strict external rules to decide what and how much they eat, they may not be ready for gentle nutrition.”

Knowing what might trigger you ahead of time is a good idea, too, Byrne says, so you’ll be prepared on how to handle it. For example, if your relationship with nutrition becomes too rigid, she says that you may want to take a step back or put a pause on gentle nutrition for a while and focus on listening to your body’s cravings. (That rigidity might look like feeling guilty for not eating fruits or vegetables at every meal or for eating two unbalanced meals in a row, for example.)

“The problem with taking a super strict approach to nutrition is that it almost always backfires,” Byrne says. “It’s also no fun! You can only force yourself to do something that doesn’t come naturally for so long.”

That strict approach can also hurt you physically, emotionally, and socially, leading to fatigue, missing out on relationships, anxiety, eating disorders, malnutrition, and more. “The bottom line is, if we’re too strict about nutrition, it can become very unhealthy,” Lutz says.

“If this starts to happen, remind yourself that having food rules isn't healthy,” Byrne adds. “If it continues, you might want to stop thinking about gentle nutrition for a while and instead just focus on eating what sounds good when you're hungry.”

How to incorporate gentle nutrition

Byrne and Lutz share some examples of what a meal or snack might look like through the lens of intuitive eating and gentle nutrition:

  • Adding a piece of fruit to your breakfast
  • Trying a vegetable recipe that actually tastes good instead of a low-calorie one you (let’s be honest) hate
  • Aiming to include a protein, carbohydrate, and fat in every meal and most snacks so you can stay satisfied and energetic for longer
  • Carrying a water bottle with you throughout the day to help you stay well-hydrated
  • Keeping satisfying, filling snacks on hand so you’re eating enough all day long
  • Eating toast for breakfast if you’re craving it, then adding an egg or peanut butter for protein and fat
  • Snacking on something that will energize you before or after a workout

This isn’t a one-size-fits-all kind of deal, however. “Gentle nutrition will look different from person to person, because we all have different food preferences and physical needs,” Byrne says.

It also may be best to start slow. Take it one meal at a time; don’t feel pressure to practice gentle nutrition at every meal, especially at the start. And after you try it, journal or think about how you feel. Was it triggering at all? What would make it not triggering next time? What pace feels safest for you? Remember, there’s no judgment here. Whether you want to add a handful of grapes or one grape or no grapes, you’re doing just fine.

Gentle nutrition is not about perfection, at any point. “There are many, many complex determinants of health,” Lutz says. “Simplifying nutrition in a rigid way doesn’t make scientific sense. There is not one strict way to eat.”

How gentle nutrition can help—diet culture ignored—when you’re ready

Gentle nutrition is a way to respect your body—it knows what it needs!—while fueling yourself with the nutrients that will help you carry out (and enjoy) your everyday life. It’s a way to ensure you feel your best.

“When we understand the basics of nutrition, it can help us meet our bodies’ nutrition needs and may help translate for us how food makes us feel,” Lutz says. She encourages using your understanding to inform, not rule, your food choices. This way, you can eat what you want while meeting your body’s other needs. (A win-win, in our book.) Yep: No food rules, sacrificing ice cream nights with friends, or exhaustion.

Gentle nutrition can also be a helpful tool if you have a medical condition. For example, Byrne says it allows people with diabetes to keep their blood sugar stable without a strict meal plan, or people experiencing constipation, who can add fiber to meals in a tasty, enjoyable way.

But again, if you find it triggering or unhelpful, listen to that. If it’s not helping you feel your best, mentally and physically, don’t do it—just stick with eating what you’re craving.

When it comes down to it, food doesn’t have moral value (aka, you’re not a “bad” person for eating cake or a “good” person for eating a salad), and all foods have value of some kind.

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