What is gentle nutrition? Imagine a Venn diagram. In one circle, we have intuitive eating, which is an approach to making decisions about what, when, and how much to eat centered around our body’s internal cues. In the other circle, we have medical nutrition therapy, which is the use of nutrition to treat various health problems. In the area in the middle where the two circles overlap lives a concept that we call gentle nutrition.
For my patients who are working to rebuild their intuitive eating skills, getting a firm handle on what gentle nutrition means and how to implement it in their lives are often two of the trickiest steps they face. The most common reason is that people oftentimes do not trust that their body’s internal cues will steer them in the direction of eating in a way that is conducive to their health. This fear, which I otherwise think of as the “If I allow myself to eat whatever I want, all I will do is have [insert the name of your taboo food] all the time” expectation, implies that eating for health means overriding intuitive eating cues.
My counter to that concern is to cite the food journal analyses that I perform on some of my patients. When I look at the intakes of my seasoned intuitive eaters, their nutrient consumption almost always falls within their estimated needs because their body naturally guides them towards the food it requires. In other words, my clinical experience suggests that when we eat intuitively, the eating-for-health part largely takes care of itself.
But what if our body is an imperfect guide? What if we face a gap between how far our intuitive eating takes us and where medical nutrition therapy suggests we should be?
For starters, take a step back and remember that our behaviors have limited influence on our health. One of my patients recently told me about a colleague who was diagnosed with cancer, and as word spread around the office, her co-workers reacted with surprise because the woman is so “thin and healthy.” (And as my patient astutely pointed out, if her colleague was fat rather than thin, people likely would have felt that she brought her health woes upon herself, which is a whole other problem.) Hearing the story reminded me of a fellow healthcare practitioner who was diagnosed with cancer herself despite being clearly orthorexic. For people who erroneously believe that they can control their medical fates if only they engage in certain behaviors, counter examples like these can rock their world.
Given that we may suffer whatever ailment we hope to avoid regardless of our best efforts to steer clear of it, we have to consider the lengths that we are willing to go to – and what we are willing to sacrifice – in hopes of reducing our risk. Focusing on medical nutrition therapy may sound sensible in theory, but doing so can come at the expense of our relationship with food. Consider the following scenarios that someone with hypertension might face.
- What if you feel like you should never have salty food because of your high blood pressure, or when you do allow yourself to have it, you feel like you are being “bad”?
- What if you have a history of restriction and the mere thought of cutting down on salt feels traumatic?
- What if you are a recovering binge eater and stocking salty foods is an important step in your treatment?
- What if you are on the road and happen upon a restaurant famous for a high-salt dish you really want to try, but you feel like if you do, you are asking for a cardiac event?
Who wants this level of angst interwoven with their eating when the fact of the matter is they could die of a heart attack no matter how much or how little sodium they consume? Unfortunately, stress, guilt, second-guessing, and inner turmoil can be significant issues when we practice not-so-gentle nutrition.
We advocate for gentle nutrition because of the downsides that come with focusing too hard on medical nutrition therapy and because of the upsides of taking a more moderate approach that still respects intuitive eating. Consider how someone practicing gentle nutrition would approach the same scenarios that I listed earlier.
- What if you feel like you should never have salty food because of your high blood pressure, or when you do allow yourself to have it, you feel like you are being “bad”? They understand that complete abstinence of salty food is neither necessary nor practical, and they can enjoy such foods without guilt.
- What if you have a history of restriction and the mere thought of cutting down on salt feels traumatic? Before even tackling gentle nutrition for their blood pressure concerns, they first do the necessary work to heal their relationship with food, thereby making medical nutrition therapy feel less triggering.
- What if you are a recovering binge eater and stocking salty foods is an important step in your treatment? They recognize that in order to make peace with salty foods and get to a place where “a little” does not automatically turn into “a lot,” they have to practice unconditional permission and abundance, which entails exposure, continuous access, and predictable overconsumption for a period of time.
- What if you are on the road and happen upon a restaurant famous for a high-salt dish you really want to try, but you feel like if you do, you are asking for a cardiac event? They understand that no single eating experience is going to save nor doom their health, that food is part of culture and travel, and that they would probably regret forgoing a rare opportunity.*
How then is the nutrition part of gentle nutrition implemented? That same person with hypertension may use their intuitive eating cues to determine that they feel like having a piece of fruit for a snack, but both the apple and the banana sound equally appealing, so they opt for the latter since it has more potassium than the former. On the other hand, if they feel like solely the apple would hit the spot, they eat it, enjoy it, and look for other places in their day to get their potassium. If the whole day goes by without consuming much potassium, they do not worry, but rather trust that their intuitive eating cues guide them in different directions day to day, and tomorrow they could very well find themselves taking in a high amount of potassium.
After reading all this, you might be thinking to yourself, “Yeah, okay, I get that my health is not entirely within my control, but I want to do everything I can to minimize my risk.” If so, that is entirely your right. You are the expert in your own life, nobody is in a better position to decide your path forward than you are, and I commend you for weighing the pros and cons and making an informed decision that feels right for you.
However, that same autonomy applies to each of us, and many people conclude that not-so-gentle nutrition is just not worth its cons and that gentle nutrition is the way to go.
* Speaking from personal experience, I remember spending a night at a church on a Native American reservation in Montana during my Seattle-to-Boston bicycle trip. My hosts offered me one of their traditional dishes – something that I can only describe as a French-fried donut, although I am sure that is not at all what it was – and it turned out to be literally the best tasting food I have ever had in my life. Sometimes I think about what I would have missed had I turned down the food due to nutrition concerns.