If you’ve been learning about intuitive eating for a while, you’ve probably heard of gentle nutrition. Maybe your favorite anti-diet, intuitive eating accounts have posted about it. Maybe your friends have mentioned it. Maybe you’ve even seen a non-diet dietitian (like me!) and they’ve told you about it. But even though the term is popular, one of the most common questions my clients ask is — what is gentle nutrition?
Here, I’ll break it down and include some examples and actionable ways to put gentle nutrition to work.
(And psst…if you need a little extra help, go here to request a nutrition counseling appointment — we’re in-network with most Blue Cross Blue Shield plans as of October 2022, which means you might be able to work with a non-diet dietitian at no cost!)
What is gentle nutrition?
Dietitians and intuitive eating co-creators Elyse Resch and Evelyn Tribole go into detail about gentle nutrition in their books. On the intuitive eating website, they define it like this:
“Make food choices that honor your health and taste buds while making you feel good. Remember that you don’t have to eat perfectly to be healthy. You will not suddenly get a nutrient deficiency or become unhealthy, from one snack, one meal, or one day of eating. It’s what you eat consistently over time that matters. Progress, not perfection, is what counts.”
As a non-diet dietitian, I think about gentle nutrition as eating a variety of nutrients throughout the day while also eating what satisfies you and being flexible. It’s about adding nutrient-dense foods, not restricting yourself or forcing yourself to eat “healthy” food you don’t like. And, it’s never about labeling foods as “good” or “bad.”
How is gentle nutrition different from diet culture?
Often when I’m working with clients on intuitive eating and eating disorder recovery, they’re curious about gentle nutrition. They wonder how it’s possible to incorporate nutrition into an intuitive eating approach. They don’t think it’s possible, because everything they’ve learned about nutrition has been from a diet culture lens.
But, diet culture doesn’t have a monopoly on nourishment. In fact, dieting can actually worsen your health. Restriction often leads to binge eating — I explain that in this post about the binge-restrict cycle. Dieting can leave you nutrient-deficient if you’re cutting out lots of foods or food groups. And, dieting leads to feelings of guilt, shame, anxiety, and obsession about food. None of that is healthy.
Gentle nutrition, on the other hand, is about honoring the fact that all foods contain different nutrients and that variety is important.
At the start of your intuitive eating journey — before you introduce gentle nutrition — you might gravitate only towards once-forbidden foods like pizza, fries, cookies, and donuts. That’s fine — a few weeks or months without many fruits and vegetables won’t break your health.
But once you start getting used to these foods, you’ll start craving a much wider variety. Over the course of a day, you might eat pizza and a vegetable stir-fry and a hummus and pita snack and a little bit of chocolate-covered fruit. That’s the point of gentle nutrition. It’s about eating a variety of foods without feeling like some of them are “good’ and some are “bad”.
What’s the problem with thinking of foods as good or bad?
When diet culture talks about nutrition, the conversation is usually about “good” and “bad” foods. But that’s not helpful, nor is it true. Again, no one food is going to make or break your health.
And, food has no moral value. All foods serve a purpose in our bodies, despite silly diet culture ideas like “empty calories” (there’s no such thing — a calorie is a calorie) and “junk food” (a vague and unhelpful term).
When you think about food as “good” or “bad,” you inevitably start thinking about yourself as good or bad for eating said food. That leads to a shame spiral that can get you stuck in the binge-restrict cycle, and can really mess with your self-esteem.
Here are 6 examples of gentle nutrition:
Gentle nutrition sounds simple enough — eat a variety of foods that make you feel good without being rigid. But because it’s such a different way of thinking about nutrition, it can be confusing. Here are six good examples of gentle nutrition.
1. Add a side of fruit to your usual breakfast
Maybe you love eggs on toast for breakfast. Maybe you like stopping by your local coffee shop for a muffin or a bagel with cream cheese. An example of gentle nutrition would be adding some fruit to this breakfast, to add fiber, vitamins, and minerals. You don’t need to eat less of the other stuff or make any swaps or substitutions. You’d simply add a handful of berries alongside your eggs and toast, or pick up a banana to go with your coffee shop bagel.
2. Choose a lunch option that will give you sustained energy for the afternoon
Different foods affect us differently. This varies from person to person, and gentle nutrition is all about what feels good for you. If you’ve realized through trial and error that a fried chicken sandwich and waffle fries leaves you feeling bloated and sluggish in the afternoon, an example of gentle nutrition would be to switch things up a bit.
Maybe you try getting a side salad instead of waffle fries and see how that makes you feel. Better? Great! Or, maybe you go for something like a turkey sandwich or a loaded salad instead — if these things taste good and give you lots of energy for the afternoon, they might become your go-to lunches.
You don’t need to give up the fried chicken sandwich and waffle fries. You shouldn’t even think of this meal as “bad.” Gentle nutrition means reframing your thoughts to be something like: I know this meal doesn’t make me feel great in the afternoon, so I’ll save it for evenings when I don’t have to do anything afterwards.
3. Eat a variety of protein, carbs, and fat at every meal
Gentle nutrition does not mean tracking your macros. (That’s diet culture!) But there’s no denying that eating a mix of protein, carbs, and fat at every meal is a great way to feel good and give your body what it needs.
If you’re new to gentle nutrition, try implementing it in the way you build meals. Include a protein source (like meat, dairy, fish, beans, legumes, or tofu), a starchy carb (like pasta, noodles, bread, grains, or potatoes), and a fat (like oil, mayo, cream cheese, avocado, nuts, or nut butter) in every meal.
Eventually, you can build on this by adding a fruit or vegetables to most meals, when you can. You don’t need to eat fruits and vegetables with every single meal — this is an impossible rule to follow and will just make you feel bad. Instead, try including them whenever it makes sense.
4. Eat regularly throughout the day — and eat enough
So much of the conversation around nutrition in diet culture is about cutting things out and eating less. But in reality, nutrition is about abundance. It’s important to eat regularly, and to eat enough overall. These two things help your body function optimally and they’re crucial for health.
Eating every 3-4(ish) hours is a great example of gentle nutrition at work. This is the best way to fuel your body and keep your energy levels consistent.
5. Make vegetables taste good
Many of my clients working on intuitive eating struggle to eat vegetables. But when we dig into why, it’s not because they hate vegetables. It’s because they hate vegetables the way they’re used to preparing them. Diet culture tells us to eat our salad with little or no dressing, and to cook vegetables with little or no oil, sauce, or flavor.
Once you start cooking vegetables in tasty ways — sauteed in oil or butter, coated with sweet-salty stir-fry sauce, dipped into aioli, or folded into cheesy pasta — it gets a whole lot easier to eat them all the time.
6. Keeping nutritious snacks on hand at all times
I’ve already said that it’s important to eat regularly and enough. And snacks are a great way to add in some extra nutrients to your day. Keep a wide variety of snacks on hand so that you always have tasty options that make you feel good. If you work in an office, consider getting a mini-fridge for under your desk if you don’t have access to a full-sized office fridge. Fill your snack stash up with all kinds of different foods: granola bars, hummus cups, baby carrots, pita chips, tortilla chips, guacamole, a few of your favorite candy bars, some pieces of fruit, bags of nuts, and whatever else you can think of.
There’s no way to do gentle nutrition “wrong,” unless you’re turning it into a diet.
The best part about gentle nutrition is also the part that tends to trip people up: There’s no right or wrong way to do it.
Truly healthful eating can look so, so many different ways. And, because you’re a human with a life, your eating habits will probably change from day to day, month to month, and year to year. That’s just normal!
As long as you’re eating in a way that gives you energy and feels sustainable for you, then you shouldn’t worry about whether you’re doing gentle nutrition “right” or not.
The only way to do it wrong is to turn it into another diet with rigid rules, beating yourself up for eating too much of one food or not enough of another.
If you’re ready to stop obsessing about food, feeling guilty about what you eat, and succumbing to disordered thoughts, I can help. I’m a dietitian who specializes in eating disorders and disordered eating. I take a weight-inclusive, gender-affirming, patient-centered approach. Learn more about nutrition counseling, offered in Raleigh, NC, and virtually to clients in several states. (We’re in-network with most Blue Cross Blue Shield plans as of October 2022, which means you might be able to work with a non-diet dietitian at little or no cost!)
If you’re not ready to commit to counseling but want more information about the anti-diet approach, subscribe to my weekly newsletter.