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Gentle Nutrition: What is It and How to Start

by Dana Bean, RD

How gentle nutrition and health factor into intuitive eating, how to lay a foundation to start, and how (and when) to start implementing gentle nutrition all in this thorough article!

Gentle Nutrition: What is it and how to start blog article title with various plates of food in the background.

When we talk about gentle nutrition, we’re talking about the 10th (out of 10) principles of intuitive eating created in 1995. The intuitive eating framework helps us leave restrictive dieting behind and focuses on getting in tune with our body’s wisdom to guide food choices. Intuitive eating helps to increase interoceptive awareness or your ability to identify body sensations like hunger, fullness, and even how emotions can affect the body and food decisions.

Gentle nutrition ties in all the other principles of intuitive eating by reminding us to honor our overall health and consider how food makes us feel when choosing what to eat. This principle also let’s us know that health isn’t determined by any one factor, meal, or food choice, but rather long term habits over time.

Most people on most days won’t feel great eating cookies all day everyday. And if you do and feel fine, chances are you’re not eating enough food in general FYI! So instead of giving yourself a strict rule of not eating cookies like diet culture would do, gentle nutrition allows all foods and considers how it might feel to a cookie in a different context like with a meal for example


gentle nutrition quote.

Gentle nutrition is often the forgotten principle of intuitive eating when seen on short form content like social media. Intuitive eating is can sometimes be seen as eat what you want when you want, but that’s an incomplete and misleading portrayal of the framework! I often see and hear comments like these and you may have similar concerns:

“If I ate what I wanted, I would just eat cookies all day!”

“But I have a medical condition, I can’t just eat anything”

“It’s nice to not have food rules, but what about health?”

But gentle nutrition can help to address all of these! When we consider how we feel physically after eating a food, it can help to be a motivation for choosing food along with avoiding food rules and considering hunger, fullness, and satisfaction.

If you had an allergy and ate the food you were allergic to, how would you feel? Horrible right!? It would not feel good, would not be safe, and certainly wouldn’t be health promoting. Intuitive eating is all about that interoceptive awareness and listening to those internal red flags that say “this doesn’t feel good!” Health is not ignored, but embraced with gentle nutrition.

People living with diabetes, GI disorders, food intolerances, and other medical conditions can use a similar approach to food with gentle nutrition under guidance from their dietitian and care team. And when a chronic condition may not have direct symptoms after eating, but still may be affected by food (like cholesterol levels for example) then we consider what we can add to promote health as we’ll discuss later in this article. Please also remember there are many other factors to managing these conditions not as related to food such as stress levels, medication, genetics, sleep, etc…

Though the principles of intuitive eating aren’t necessarily in sequential order, gentle nutrition is the last and 10th principle for a reason. It’s important that we have a foundation to build on that is free from diet culture when adding gentle nutrition into the mix! These are a few questions to ask yourself before working on gentle nutrition.

  • Have you released all of your past food rules?
  • Are you able to make food choices based on internal hunger, fullness, and satisfaction cues (and not based on previous food rules)?
  • Are you eating enough food? (If you don’t know, meet with an intuitive eating trained dietitian)
  • Are you avoiding disordered eating behaviors?
  • Are you able to avoid labeling foods as “good” and “bad”
  • Are you able to eat previous “fear foods” without feeling guilt or shame?

Though this is not a comprehensive list, if you answered yes to these questions, you are well on your way to being ready to implement more gentle nutrition into your eating!

If you are diagnosed with an eating disorder, please know that intuitive eating and gentle nutrition are not recommended in the earlier stages of treatment. It is crucial to have your hunger and fullness signals return and be re-nourished at minimum before utilizing some of the intuitive eating principles. Please reach out to your care team for your individual treatment plan. If you don’t have a care team in place, you may be able to start here.

Now that we’ve addressed what gentle nutrition is and how to know if you’re ready for it, we can talk about HOW to implement gentle nutrition! Here are some tips to get you started.

Intentionally ADDING elements to meals and snacks (versus restricting as diet rules would direct) helps us to factor in nutrition benefits without re-damaging your relationship to food and body. This could look like:

  • Adding chia seeds to oatmeal for the benefits of omega 3’s
  • Adding zucchini and spinach to a pasta dish to increase the amount of fiber and folate
  • Eating a cheese stick with pretzels to add protein and increase satisfaction between meals
  • Adding raspberries to your cereal to add vitamin C and fiber

Along with adding nutrients to our meals, we can also choose food options with more nutrient benefit WHEN it doesn’t impact satisfaction and when our preference align or are indifferent. Here are some example, but this will likely look different for you as an individual and are by no means how you must implement gentle nutrition.

  • Choosing whole grain bread over white bread because you like it, it’s satisfying, and you want the added fiber for satisfaction
  • Making a dip with greek yogurt versus mayo because you like the tangy taste it adds, and want the added protein
  • Choosing brown rice over white rice because you like the texture better and would like the added vitamins of the whole grain version

As mentioned earlier, you’ll want to think about how a food will feel in your body now, and throughout the rest of the day when making food decisions! Examples:

  • You want fries, but the last several times you had a burger and fries you did not feel well after. You decide to opt for a salad with the fries this time to see how that goes
  • You love a warm latte on a rainy day, but the caffeine causes your anxiety to rise. It’s already been a high anxiety day so you opt for decaf or tea this time instead
  • You love pizza, but every time you eat it from a particular restaurant you don’t feel well for the rest of the day. You have a family gathering there and decide to order something else from the menu so you can fully enjoy the time with family!

Reaching out for help from an intuitive eating and/or weight neutral dietitian will give you individualized recommendations for applying gentle nutrition and other intuitive eating principles!

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