Author: Associate RD – Maddie Mclean, RD, CDCES (formerly Maddie White)

There is no shortage of nutrition tips, hacks, and how-to’s in our culture. Yet so often these well-meaning “tips” are complicated and rigid, or sometimes just downright false. This leaves people confused and feeling deflated about making healthy food choices. That’s where “Gentle Nutrition” comes in. “Gentle Nutrition” is a concept coined by the authors of Intuitive Eating. It’s a way to combine outside nutrition advice with your internal wisdom, bodily needs and intuition. Outside nutrition advice can include health guidelines, evidenced based research, expert opinions, and philosophical values (like eating locally). Our internal wisdom might include an understanding of what food meets our personal needs – in taste, amounts, pleasure, etc… Learning to eat intuitively and understand our bodies needs without diet culture interfering is what helps us attune to ourselves and know when it’s helpful or unhelpful to include outside advice and recommendations.

The first eight principles in Intuitive Eating focus on  attunement and healing from diet culture and a history of dieting. Doing this inner work is crucial to effectively and authentically using “Gentle Nutrition.” If you’re diving into “Gentle Nutrition” without having taken the time to improve your interoceptive awareness, dismantle diet rules and the food police, or get to know your own body’s messages, your intake of “Gentle Nutrition” will be skewed. Metaphorically, it’s like trying to experience stargazing with dark sunglasses – the lenses of diet culture alter your perception of the information within “Gentle Nutrition,” causing you to approach it from a diet mindset instead of a place that is free of judgment. For example, you might hear that adding whole grains will add fiber to your diet and support your digestion. Gentle nutrition might mean opting for whole grains that you enjoy at the grocery store while also enjoying that yummy French roll at your favorite deli. If diet culture was clouding your judgment it could possibly lead to swearing off white bread forever, committing to a whole grain bread with the most fiber (likely dry and not as palatable) and then also feeling deprived at the deli when you won’t allow yourself to enjoy your favorite roll.

The following are three tips for Honoring Your Health with Gentle Nutrition:

1. “In matters of taste, consider nutrition, and in matters of nutrition, consider taste.”

(Quote from project “Resetting the American Table: Creating a New Alliance of Taste and Health”). The foods we eat first and foremost have to taste good to us. There are hundreds of foods with high nutrient density, meaning foods with a high level of micronutrients (vitamins and minerals) – you aren’t going to like every single one and you don’t have to! “Wellness Culture” pushes superfoods onto us, and while these foods can be healthful and nourishing, they aren’t necessary if you don’t like them. Not to mention labeling something as a “superfood” often drives up the cost!

2. Combine a variety of food groups for maximum pleasure, staying power, and nourishment.

Ditch the complicated rules and keep it simple – aim to include 4-5 food groups at meals and 2-3 food groups at snack. Consider the following food groups: 

    1. Grains/Starches – aim to make half of your intake whole grains
    2. Fruits/Vegetables – aim to include these at every meal
    3. Protein – aim to include a variety of plant and animal proteins and increase fish consumption, or talk with your doctor/RD about a fish oil supplement for long term heart health 
    4. Fat – avocado, nuts, and seeds are packed with heart and brain healthy fats as well as a ton of fiber and micronutrients 
    5. Dairy – the trifecta food group – containing protein, fat, and energizing carbohydrate along with a healthy amount of calcium (bones), magnesium (mood), and other significant micronutrients 
    6. Play Foods – avoid deprivation and make your favorite play foods a regular part of your intake

3. Be thoughtful about your use of nutrition labels

Are nutrition labels helpful or harmful? The answer can be both. Ask yourself why you’re wanting to peek at the label. Is it to check the calories, which still have a grip on you? Or is it to assess the fiber, because you notice it helps your digestion? Intention makes a big difference here. Have you found total freedom from the nutrition label? If so, chances are you actually check it far less frequently. If you find you’re still influenced or controlled by it, “harmless” checking only reinforces that fear (and interferes with our attunement to the body). The book notes it best, “if eating healthfully is a pleasurable experience, and it makes you feel better, you are more likely to continue honoring your health with your food choices.”

If you aren’t ready for “Gentle Nutrition,” that’s okay! There’s no rush. Research shows us that intuitive eaters have better long-term health outcomes. It’s worth taking the time you need, however long that is, to really do the inner work needed for you to absorb this information safely and effectively. 

Nutrition is a science that, like any science, is ever-changing with new research and findings. Our bodies, however, are smart and adaptable. If we learn how to listen, they let us know what they need. Nutrition alone won’t make or break your health. In fact, nutrition is a long way down the list of most influential factors of health, behind social connection and social determinants – including stress. To stress about the food you eat is counter-productive to living a healthy lifestyle. Aim for that balance of pleasure and physically feeling good, and notice the changes that “Gentle Nutrition” have made in your life. Would you like individual support as you navigate healing your relationship with food and understanding how gentle nutrition can be supportive to you? Reach out to schedule today!

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Photo of Maddie White, RD, dietitian at Nutrition Instincts San Diego Nutrition Therapy

Maddie McLean, RD (formerly Maddie White), dietitian at Nutrition Instincts San Diego Nutrition Therapy

MADDIE MCLEAN (formerly Maddie White), an eating disorder and diabetes care provider at Nutrition Instincts is passionate about helping others restore their relationships with food, body, and mind. Maddie is a Certified Diabetes Care & Education Specialist with experience in medical nutrition therapy. Maddie believes intuitive eating holds space for everyone and every body. By taking an individual approach with each client, Maddie walks alongside her clients as they learn the best way to navigate your journey to food and body freedom.   Interested in working with Maddie? CONTACT US TO SCHEDULE TODAY!