I’ve been doing more Q&A’s on Instagram lately and got a great question the other day that felt right for a blog post: how do I care for my body with nutrition without dieting?
This can be a such a hard question to approach if you have a history of dieting or an eating disorder. Diet culture tends to reduce nutrition to restriction, whether it’s through villainizing certain foods, calorie counting, ignoring hunger cues, or other methods. It’s my goal for this post to share how to start reframing the diet mindset and be able to use nutrition knowledge to support your body instead of punishing it.
Adequate Energy is Key
Ellyn Satter, an expert in child & family feeding, created the hierarchy of food needs which I think beautifully illustrates why gentle nutrition is a late-stage step of intuitive eating and not the first thing we should try.
You can see on the hierarchy that enough safe food and regular access to food are the foundations of eating. We aren’t made to starve, which is why diets don’t work. We have to have those needs met on a consistent basis before we can start to explore trying new foods and “instrumental foods” (the very top of the hierarchy is the only level that starts taking nutrition information and knowledge into account - I can’t emphasize enough that your body prioritizes adequate energy above all else). I also love this hierarchy because it helps illustrate that intuitive eating is a privilege.
Just like there are signs you’re becoming a competent eater, signs you may not be eating enough include:
Feeling constantly hungry, OR never hungry
Constantly thinking about food
Having little to no energy
Feeling cold all the time
If you menstruate, having missing or irregular periods (see your provider for a workup)
Eating the majority of your food in the evening/experiencing binge-like eating
I want to emphasize that this is not an exhaustive list and certainly there’s a lot of nuance included with each of those symptoms, but they can be a helpful check-in with your body.
Don’t Focus on the Little Stuff
Focusing on the nutritional minutiae, like certain vitamins or meal timing or eating certain colors of food, is counterproductive to health. However well-intentioned, the more things we have to keep track of, the more disordered our eating can get. There’s lots of nuance here - for example, needing to dose insulin or check a food label for allergies are all very healthy reasons to add more focus. But I think the best advice I have is: don’t think about food more than you need to.
A really broad and helpful way to get a variety of food onto your plate is to think in terms of four components:
Carbs + protein + fat + fiber
This combo is satisfying and satiating, plus is helpful in planning for pleasing meals. Counting macronutrients isn’t necessary for health, but understanding that each macronutrient has value and helps our bodies function is helpful.
Head Knowledge & Body Knowledge
I love this concept for illustrating how we can hold all the things when it comes to eating. We can nourish our bodies and souls at the same time. Head knowledge is where gentle nutrition information lives, as well as knowledge about our food allergies, schedule, budget, resources, etc. Body knowledge is how we relate to our physical selves and use those cues in eating - think hunger, fullness, cravings, preferences, etc.
Part of the hierarchy of food needs’ value is to help us reestablish body cues, because diet culture tells us that head knowledge is the only valuable information we have (untrue). I think head knowledge and gentle nutrition come in handy when meal planning or making a plate or doing the more “logistical” parts of eating. But body knowledge is still what cements my eating decisions - if we have something planned but adapting it or eating a different meal sounds better, that’s an opportunity I’ll take if resources allow. The beauty of intuitive eating is that the more you build those skills, the less of a big deal food becomes. Not every experience has to exactly match what you’re craving, but we can do little things here and there to get as close as we can.
The Most Important Questions to Ask Yourself
I don’t give out specific gentle nutrition advice or thoughts here because I’m not everyone’s dietitian (although I’m happy to work together to support your relationship with food). But if you’re at a stage of your intuitive eating journey where gentle nutrition is something you’re considering, here’s some helpful questions to ask yourself around eating:
Is this really what I want right now?
Will I feel deprived if I don’t eat this thing?
Is this food truly satisfying and satiating to me?
Would I still choose this action/behavior if I didn’t think it would change my body size or shape?
How do you bring gentle nutrition into your eating?