This is the ninth post in a 10-part series looking at the principles of Intuitive Eating. Last week’s post was on Principle 9: Movement – Feel the Difference.

Here we are, the final post in this series on the 10 principles of Intuitive Eating: Honor your health with gentle nutrition.

When clients express trepidation about learning Intuitive Eating because they care about nutrition and want to be healthy, I assure them that:

  1. Many factors that influence health (both physical and mental) and nutrition is only one of those factors.
  2. Research shows that intuitive eaters are more likely than non-intuitive eaters (which includes restrictive eaters/dieters and heck-with-it-all eaters) to eat a nutritious, balanced diet with lots of variety.

When people become skilled intuitive eaters, and they’ve:

…then that opens the door to “gentle nutrition.” Gentle nutrition honors your health and your taste buds while making you feel well. It’s an approach to nutrition that is nurturing, not punishing.

The reason gentle nutrition is the last Intuitive Eating principle is that most people know almost too much about nutrition and already have a lot of food rules. Working through the other principles first lets us approach nutrition with a new, open perspective.

But…will I eat healthy enough?

We know that nutrition is important for health and for disease prevention, but this knowledge turns many people into “guilty eaters” and brings out the food police. In some cases, excessive worry about getting nutrition “right” can lead to orthorexia, a form of disordered eating that is literally an unhealthy obsession with eating healthy.

That’s concerning on multiple levels, but it’s also ironic, because there is no “perfect” way to eat. Nutrition science is evolving all the time, and there simply is no evidence that any one dietary pattern is better than all others for promoting health. Yes, eat vegetables, and yes, if at all possible don’t eat most of your meals from a package, but beyond that there’s a lot of options for eating well.

Here’s a sad statistic: Americans worry about their health and their food the most AND have the greatest dissatisfaction with what they eat.

Have you heard of the chocolate cake study? When researchers asked Americans, French, Belgian and Japanese participants what word came to mind when they thought about chocolate cake, the Americans said “guilt,” while the French and the Belgians said “celebration.” The Japanese were somewhere in between.

Does this surprise you? I’m guessing your answer is, “No.”

Enlightened hedonism

One idea is to change our eating attitude to one of enlightened hedonism: A balance between information and pleasure, an educated hedging of bets. Or: “Enjoy eating food. Not too much—not too little. Mostly what satisfies you.”

In Intuitive Eating, we talk about making peace with food, about shedding the guilt, easing our restrictions and mentally moving away from the idea that some foods are “good” and others are “bad.” But often, we have to make peace with nutrition, as well.

With almost every client I’ve had, as they start to settle into their practice of intuitive eating, the question comes up: “I wanted broccoli the other day…but did I want it because diet mentality was creeping back in, or did I want it intuitively?”

Another concern I hear a lot is, “I want to give up dieting and try intuitive eating, but I also want to be healthy.” This kind of taps into the idea—or maybe even the fear—that taking the intuitive eating path means going on a food free-for-all. Not only is that ironic, because it’s the restrictiveness of dieting that can lead to out-of-control eating as the pendulum swings from one extreme to the other, but it’s just not what happens. In fact, studies show that intuitive eating is associated with improved nutrition and eating a wider variety of foods.

Why? Because eating healthfully feels good. When you ditch the guilt and the morality-tinged notions of good and bad foods, it opens you up to experiencing how food makes you feel physically.

You can’t eat morals

Healthy eating is a having a healthy balance of foods and a healthy relationship with food. Yes, there is a nutritional difference between an apple and apple pie, or between green broccoli and green jelly beans, but there’s no moral difference.

Nutritional balance is something you achieve over time. No single food, or meal, or even day of eating makes or breaks your health. And as an intuitive eater, if you do have a day, or even a week, of eating that doesn’t leave you feeling your best—maybe you’re extra busy, or traveling, or something…you’ll slip right back into the eating pattern that does leave you satisfied and feeling good, but without any internal guilt or recrimination.

That’s because when healthy eating is pleasurable and makes you feel better, you’re likely to continue honoring your health with your food choices.

Related to the whole question of “Do I want broccoli because that used to be one of my diet foods or do I want it because I like it and it makes me feel good?” is another important point that there can be confusion about in the early stages of intuitive eating: Making informed food choices doesn’t betray your ability to be an intuitive eater.

If you remember back in Principle 3 (make peace with food) one of the “food voices” in your head is the Nutrition Informant.” This voice can work for you or against you.

  • It works against you when it uses the idea of “nutrition” as a stick to keep you dieting.
  • It works for you when it helps you make healthy food choices without guilt or deprivation.

Remember, what’s important is Progress, not perfection! Or, as Voltaire put it: “Perfect is the enemy of the good”

Consider Taste

Eating nutritiously does not have to be about deprivation, but unfortunately many of us have had many sad food experiences in the name of “health”:

  • “Eat your vegetables or you don’t get dessert!”
  • Joyless “healthy” foods like fat-free cheese
  • Faux deliciousness like putting graham cracker crumbs on applesauce and pretending it’s apple pie
  • Food fears, including the fear that you’re one bite away from some horrible health outcome

In the late 1980s, Julia Child was alarmed by emerging food fears and the rise of tasteless “healthy” food. She put together a task force of experts from both the culinary and health communities, with the goal of helping Americans be healthier without giving up pleasure.

The key message from the task force was, “In matters of taste, consider nutrition, and in matters of nutrition, consider taste.”

Consider Quantity

There’s a lot of moral panic about huge restaurant portion sizes. But guess what? Big portions aren’t a problem when you’re an intuitive eater. Intuitive eaters are tuned into their hunger and fullness levels. They’re in touch with how they want to feel physically when they leave the table. They’ve canceled their membership in the Clean Plate Club…and they no longer feel the urge to engage in Last Supper eating.

Another thing intuitive eaters do is eat enough. Something dieters often forget is that when you are feeding your body, you’re feeding your metabolism. (There’s a myth that exercising more when you’re cutting calories will prevent damage to your metabolism—and prevent muscle loss—but that’s not true. Even athletes lose muscle if they undereat.)

I have a client who’s been working on intuitive eating for a while, and she told me she realized, “I’m eating less by eating more.” So what did she mean by this? In my client’s case, she had been on and off restrictive diets, and when she was dieting, she was always hungry. So when she was stressed, or tired, or sad, or simply dared to eat a portion of a “forbidden” food, she would eat and eat and eat, for comfort, but also because she was tired of being hungry.

Now that she’s stopped restricting, and nourishes herself with delicious, nutritious food, she no longer has these binges. So she’s eating more in the sense that she eats enough food to be fully satisfied at every meal, and she doesn’t play the game of trying to make everything low-fat or low-carb anymore. This means she’s eating less in the sense that she’s not engaging in out-of-control eating episodes.

Consider Quality

What nutrition research is clear on is that the quality of our food matters more than any specific ratio of carbs, protein and fat. Of course, being able to purchase high-quality food is a privilege, so while each of us can do the best we can in that regard, I think it’s important to also have our non-judgement hats on. Here’s a good way to build a foundation of nutritional quality:

  • Eat your fruits and veggies. Think of how you can incorporate veggies (and fruit) in a way that doesn’t scream diet, such as adding extra veggies to a pasta sauce or casserole. People who eat more fruits and veggies feel better.
  • Eat enough grains, ideally half of them whole.
  • Eat enough fish. Most recommendations suggest two servings per week, but including at least one is enough to help protect your brain as you age.
  • Drink enough fluids, mostly water. Mild dehydration doesn’t feel good. If you don’t like plain water, try adding a squeeze of lemon or lime, or go for sparkling water or unsweetened tea (hot or iced)

Remember that the less a food is processed, the more nutrients are retained in the food and the less sodium and sugar are added to the food. Whole and minimally processed foods include:

Self-care, not self-control

Odds are you know a lot about nutrition, because there’s a lot of nutrition information out there, and it’s hard not to absorb some of it. But remember that:

  1. it’s important to balance nutrition information with the pleasure from eating.
  2. that information doesn’t just come from what I say, or the nutrition guidelines say, or anyone else says. It comes from listening to your body.

When you’re not sure why you want to eat that broccoli – or other “healthy” foods – ask yourself:

  • Do I really like the taste of these foods, or am I only eating them because they’re “healthy”?
  • How does eating this food, or this type of meal, make my body feel? Do I like the feeling?
  • How do I feel when eating this way consistently? Do I like the feeling and would I choose to feel this way again?
  • Am I experiencing differences in my energy levels based on how I eat?

Your answers to these questions will tell your intention or desire to eat that broccoli (or some other “healthy” food, comes from a place of self-care, or self-control.

Carrie Dennett, MPH, RDN, is a Pacific Northwest-based registered dietitian nutritionist, freelance writer, intuitive eating counselor, author, and speaker. Her superpowers include busting nutrition myths and empowering women to feel better in their bodies and make food choices that support pleasure, nutrition and health. This post is for informational purposes only and does not constitute individualized nutrition or medical advice.

Seeking 1-on-1 nutrition counseling? Carrie offers a 6-month Food & Body program (intuitive eating, body image, mindfulness, self-compassion) and a 4-month IBS management program (low-FODMAP diet coaching with an emphasis on increasing food freedom). Visit the links to learn more and book a free intro call to see if the program is a good fit, and if we’re a good fit!

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