While sitting in my therapist’s office, I came to an important realization: I haven’t stopped viewing food in black and white terms. I’ve simply flipped the way I see it.
Back in the earliest days of my eating disorder, I saw the world in black and white: I categorized foods as ‘good’ and ‘bad,’ and only allowed myself to consume the good. Nowadays, as I continue my recovery and my intuitive eating journey, I’ve noticed that I view any attempt to be healthier as a ‘diet.’ I avoid pushing myself to make any overtly healthy choices because I view those choices as a slippery slope into relapse.
But it isn’t quite that simple — at least, not for me, a weight-restored patient nearly six years into her recovery. Truthfully, as a patient with IBS, eating processed, packaged snacks and dessert foods all the time makes me feel like shit. These foods wreak havoc on my digestive system and my skin, and leave me with the worst ever afternoon slump.
My therapist encouraged me to challenge my black-and-white mentality by finding a balance between these ‘good’ and ‘bad’ habits. So, I did what I do best: I overthought, doing as much research as I could about how I could treat my body well without sliding back into my eating disorder.
Eventually, my journey brought me to the book The Food Therapist — which, if you follow me on Instagram, you know I’m still reading. However, this book, along with many of the eating disorder dietitians I admire, inspired me to explore gentle nutrition in greater detail.
Today, I’m sharing that wisdom with you — because my journey may be far from over, but that doesn’t mean we can’t learn together! I may not be fully ‘recovered’ (if a person can ever truly recover from the effects of a diet culture they still live in), yet I hope by being honest and transparent about my journey I inspired you to keep going in your own recovery, even when the going gets tough. xx
What is Gentle Nutrition?
When we first start healing from our eating disorder, many of us turn to intuitive eating — yet fear that eating intuitively means eating whatever we want, and gaining weight uncontrollably. Well, that’s simply not true!
Before you ask, yes, I went through the early phase that so many of us go through: when I first discovered intuitive eating, I ate so much pizza, cookies and ice cream I thought my stomach might explode with joy. I also gained weight in places I never wanted or expected to, challenging myself to come to terms with this new body. But as much as I feared I would keep gaining weight forever, that just wasn’t the case. Eventually, I found my set-point weight (more on that here) and everything evened itself out, with no real ‘effort’ on my part.
Because the other thing about eating intuitively — the one no one stops to consider when they’re fresh out of an eating disorder — is that nobody wants to eat French fries and chocolate chip cookie dough forever. As much as we may fear giving up the control lent to us by our eating disorder, we won’t lose our need for healthy, nutritious food.
Our bodies crave nutrients — they know what they need. And by definition, intuitive eating means listening to those cravings, those subtle messages from our bodies, and giving into them. You may not believe you could ever genuinely ‘crave’ a salad — but believe me, it happens! (And I’ve got the biggest sweet tooth of anyone you know…. Besides David, maybe.)
That fact of the matter is that even your favorite food can taste disgusting when you eat it all day, every day, for weeks on end. As humans, we naturally crave variety! That’s because eating a wide variety of foods is what allows us to get the broad range of vitamins and minerals we need to function optimally.
And this also happens to be the part where gentle nutrition comes into play: once we reach the phase where we begin to crave a healthier lifestyle, many of us may be gripped by fear. If you’re anything like me, you probably worried that this meant you were on the verge of an eating disorder relapse. But thinking about eating ‘healthier’ isn’t inherently bad — even if you had orthorexia like I did. It simply means that it’s time for you to learn a new way of nourishing your body.
So many of us with eating disorders learned that the only way to use the principles of nutrition was to force themselves on ourselves like a self-imposed prison. Yet gentle nutrition suggests the exact opposite: it offers quiet nudges toward healthy choices, without being guided by fear or self-hatred. Instead of asking us to change our bodies, it encourages us to fuel our bodies with what they need to survive and thrive. And, of course, gentle nutrition never asks you to restrict your portion sizes, or give up the foods you love. We’re still intuitive eaters here, after all!
So, how do you get started with gentle nutrition when what you’re used to is, frankly, aggressive nutrition? I know how difficult this can be firsthand: as a perfectionist, I felt extremely intimidated by the idea that I could still eat healthy without ‘rules’ to stick to. However, there are some loose guidelines that explain what gentle nutrition is all about! These tips will guide you through the essential tenets of gentle nutrition, to guide you toward the right starting place — and teach you how to start making healthy choices for your body, without giving up the foods you love.
Because yes: no matter what your eating disorder says, you really can eat carrots and cookies in the same ‘healthy’ meal — heck, you can even enjoy them, too!
Tip #1: View Food as Fuel
Early in my eating disorder recovery, I struggled to let go of calorie restriction, and ‘forgot’ to eat at least one meal per day. But once I learned what a calorie actually meant in my college nutrition class, I finally understood why eating enough of them was important: a calorie (short for ‘kilocalorie’) is a measure of the energy stored in a food as heat. When we don’t get enough calories, we don’t get enough energy, either — which explains why we feel foggy, tired and hangry when we don’t eat enough throughout the day.
This shift was instrumental in my recovery, because it taught me to view food as fuel, rather than a tool to shape my body with. I could then make choices shaped by gentle nutrition to help me fuel my body more efficiently. For example, I know that something sugary like a cupcake will give me a quick jolt — but if I’m looking for long-term energy, I’m better off choosing complex carbs, like a veggie sandwich on whole-grain bread (gluten-free, of course!).
That isn’t to say there will never be a day I choose the cupcake over the whole-grain sandwich — of course there will be! But instead of forcing myself to choose the sandwich every time (or forcing myself to eat the cupcake when I’m not in the mood for one), I can use the nutritional information I have about how these foods will fuel my body, compare them with my plans for the day and thoughtfully select the choice that best aligns with my nutritional goals, rather than society’s expectations.
Tip #2: Set SMART Goals
And speaking of goals, it’s still healthy — and even encouraged! — to set nutrition goals in eating disorder recovery. The difference between setting healthy, balanced goals and relapsing is whether those goals use numbers like weight or calories as a benchmark for success…. and, of course, whether those goals are realistic.
Back when I was a Girl Scout (from 1st through 12th grade, that is!), I learned about a little tip called SMART goals. Though I originally discovered SMART goals in the context of cookie selling, they’ve stuck with me to this day because of how helpful they are in reality-checking your goals. According to the SMART goals school of thought, “SMART” is actually an acronym that stands for….
Specific. Are your goals specific enough that it’s clear what you need to do to achieve them? (For example, there’s a difference between saying “I will eat more fruits and vegetables” and “I will eat two fruits and two vegetables every day.”)
Measurable. Can your goals be measured? This defines the yardstick against which you will assess your progress. Using the example above, it’s clear whether or not you’ve eaten two fruits and two vegetables today — but what does it mean, exactly, to eat “more” fruits and vegetables? The world may never know, because that’s not a measurable goal!
Attainable. Can your goal be achieved — and, most importantly, can it be achieved in the amount of time you’re allotting yourself? You wouldn’t expect yourself to go from benching 0 to 100 lbs in one week alone — but over the course of a couple months, that goal might become more attainable.
Realistic. Are your goals realistic? That isn’t to say you should never shoot for the stars — of course not! But this is the difference between gentle nutrition and an eating disorder mindset: achieving your “dream body” isn’t realistic because your definition of a dream body will just continue to change. (Not to mention, you can’t change the shape of your body — so no matter how much weight you lose, you may never meet your own expectations.) Alternatively, you might set a goal to get in good enough shape to walk up a flight of stairs without panting. That’s clearly realistic, because it’s a concrete and measurable objective that can be reached.
Timely. Last but not least, your goals must always be timely — meaning, you should always get specific about how much time you’ll need to achieve your goals. This goes hand-in-hand with attainable: see the example above about benching 100 lbs in one week, versus a few months!
Once you’ve answered these questions for yourself, make sure to write your goals down (along with their SMART characteristics) in a planner or journal: people who write down their goals are 42% more likely to achieve them than people who don’t!
Tip #3: Add, Don’t Subtract
Eating disorders are all about restriction and deprivation: we become addicted to the concept of “subtracting” foods from our diet, so we tell ourselves (and others) lies — i.e. “I’m not hungry,” “I don’t like French fries,” “I’m lactose intolerant” — to get out of eating the fear foods that scare us.
The difference between restriction and gentle nutrition is that gentle nutrition is all about adding, rather than subtracting. Because slashing broad categories or foods altogether? That’s a diet, not a lifestyle.
Meanwhile, a sustainable lifestyle driven by gentle nutrition is all about what you can add to your meals — for example, if you’re eating a meal dominated by protein and carbs, can you add a fat in to ensure you’re getting all the macronutrients you need to stay full longer? Or, if you love your red and orange veggies, can you throw them in a salad with some dark leafy greens to make sure you’re getting enough iron and vitamin K for a healthy body?
Whenever a nutritionist, influencer or diet plan suggests you cut broad categories of foods out of your lifestyle, a siren should start sounding in your head. Gentle nutrition would never ask you to give up your favorite flavor of ice cream in favor of frozen bananas. We’re not about that here. Instead, we eat the ice cream — and then, when we’re hungry again 20 minutes later, we maybe have a banana with some peanut butter. Because around here, we eat when we’re hungry and stop when we’re full…. and preferably, we eat a satisfying snack of fibrous fruits and nut butter loaded with healthy fats. (Besides, peanut butter is damn delicious! Comment “I ❤ PB” if you agree.)
Tip #4: Eat to Feel Good
When I first got diagnosed with IBS, the prospect of beginning the low-FODMAP diet made me feel miserable. “Great,” I mumbled to myself, “just another diet to send me on the path toward self-restriction again….”
Later on, someone gave me a piece of wisdom that opened my eyes: rather than viewing the foods I couldn’t eat as forbidden, they encouraged me to view the low-FODMAP diet as a choice. They reminded me that no one wants to have IBS, but that I also couldn’t control my negative reactions to these foods. So, I had to ask myself: did I really want to feel bloated and lethargic all day long? No? Then, avoiding certain foods was a choice I needed to make, in order to help myself feel better. It really could be that simple!
In a way, low-FODMAP wasn’t a diet at all — but rather, a kind of medicine. It stopped feeling like a death sentence, and instead became just another piece of the treatment plan recommended by my doctor. And that’s what I mean when I say, “Eat to feel good.” When you’re choosing the foods you want to eat, don’t think about the number of calories or macros in them; don’t think about whether they’ll help you fit into those size two skinny jeans. Instead, ask yourself: how does this food make you feel?
And, look, I get it: sometimes, you just have to eat the double-chocolate Oreo cheesecake, gastrointestinal consequences be damned. But no one wants to feel like shit every day of their lives. Eventually, you’ll find yourself making better choices not because you have to, but rather because you want to — because you simply love the way that healthy, fresh foods make you feel.