Now for the moment you’ve all been waiting for (haha): we’re going to talk about how to integrate nutrition into intuitive eating.
As always, I recommend completing this module over the course of a week, taking some time to review the material and do the journal exercises.
Start by listening to the talks below. When you're done, scroll down for the notes, journal exercises, infographics and video.
Audio: Principles of Gentle Nutrition
PDF Workbook (New!)
Module 11 Notes
I waited until the end of the course for this module because I know that since many of you are ex-dieters, you probably had SO MUCH nutrition information swirling around in your head already.
What you really needed was to get in touch with your body, and to start using its internal cues to guide your food choices, instead of following external rules.
By now, you’re hopefully fairly practiced at doing that, so now we can revisit nutrition from a place of self-care—and break down some of the nutrition myths that you picked up in your dieting days.
But if at any point you start to relate to this information in a way that feels diet-y, go back to the previous modules—particularly Module 2 and Module 5—and work on ditching the diet mentality and challenging the food police. Then you can try again with this module.
Nutrition as Self-Care
Here we’re going to talk about using nutrition as a source of self-care, but I want to put that into context a little bit first.
Considering nutrition can help you manage your energy levels and feel your best (see “Energy and Blood Sugar” section below), and this is the main reason you might want to use nutrition information.
But nutrition is NOT the be-all-end-all of health, the way it’s often portrayed in the media. It will not make you live forever or give you a rich and shiny life. It may not even prevent disease, because while eating nutritiously may lower your risk of some diseases, it doesn’t reduce the risk to zero.
In fact, as Linda Bacon, Ph.D., described so aptly in the Food Psych episode I included in Module 2, "The role of food in health is massively blown out of proportion." In other words, nutrition will NOT make or break your health.
Another reason not to put too much stock in nutrition is orthorexia, an emerging eating disorder that is defined as an unhealthy obsession with healthy eating. As fellow podcaster Kaila Prins explains in the “further listening” episode in this module, being too obsessed with nutrition and maintaining the identity of a “healthy” person actually leads to worse health than being flexible with your eating.
That’s why nutrition experts agree that the most enduring principles of nutrition are variety, moderation, and balance.
Or, as Tribole and Resch explain in Intuitive Eating, taking the approach of “enlightened hedonism” leads to the best possible health outcomes. People need to put pleasure first more of the time (that’s hedonism), even if they are still using information to help them make more balanced food choices.
The key to being able to approach nutrition in this balanced and self-compassionate way is to integrate your inner attunement—which is now hopefully quite strong—and your outer awareness of nutrition information.
For example, your inner attunement tells you when you’re hungry, when you’re full, and what sounds satisfying. Your outer awareness can give you valuable information, too—like, for example, knowing that if you incorporate vegetables (ones you enjoy, of course!) it can help you both feel more satisfied and have a steadier balance of energy throughout the day.
Speaking of inner and outer attunement, before we go any further, I want to pause and let you check in with yourself right now. How are you feeling so far about this discussion of nutrition? Is it bringing up any old anxieties or diet-mentality thoughts? Are the food police back on the beat? Take a moment for a little self-reflection right here before we move on.
Energy and Blood Sugar
As you’ve probably learned by tuning in to your body throughout the course, hunger tends to set in about 3-4 hours after each time you eat (or maybe a little shorter after breakfast or snacks).
That’s because your body’s blood sugar levels reach a low point around that time. Whenever your blood sugar dips into the low side of the normal range, your body sends out hunger signals that tell you to eat. And when everything is working properly (i.e. you don’t have diabetes and you’re not overriding your hunger signals through dieting or other unhealthy means), the system works beautifully to keep your blood sugar levels stable.
The body is amazing that way. It’s keenly sensitive to levels of essential nutrients and chemicals in our bloodstream, and it works to bring them back into balance. That's called homeostasis.
Thirst, incidentally, works the same way; when the ratio of electrolytes to water in your bloodstream gets too high, the thirst mechanism is triggered and you drink. (That’s why people sometimes make the misleading claim that “by the time you’re thirsty, you’re already somewhat dehydrated, so you should drink before you feel thirst.” Not true! Sure, thirst is triggered by slight dehydration, but that’s exactly how our bodies were designed to work—no need to panic!)
But back to blood sugar: It’s what gives us energy, and what fuels our bodies to do literally everything, from writing emails to hiking mountains, from cooking meals to launching businesses.
When your blood sugar spikes and drops throughout the day, you don't have the sustained energy you need to get things done. You also might feel moody, upset, or erratic, which isn't good for anyone's well-being.
So managing your blood sugar levels throughout the day is a great way to practice self-care, because it helps you feel your best. It may also help reduce the risk of Type 2 Diabetes (which is a condition in which your body stops being able to regulate its own blood sugar effectively).
How do you eat for stable blood sugar? A great way is to eat a balance of carbohydrate, protein, and fat at every meal or snack.
These three components (technically called "macronutrients") are the building blocks of sustained energy:
- Carbohydrate is the quick-acting form, which brings your blood sugar up when it’s low. If you don’t have adequate carbohydrates in a meal or snack, you won’t feel particularly energized by the food.
- Protein is a medium-length energy source. It takes longer to break down than carbohydrates but less time than fat, and its presence in a meal or snack helps keep your blood sugar from spiking.
- Fat is the long-acting form of energy. It further reduces the speed at which your blood sugar rises, and takes the longest to break down of the three macronutrients mentioned here.
Mini check-in: When you hear this information, does it square with what you’ve experienced in your own tracking of hunger, fullness, and satisfaction? Can you recognize how this information might be helpful? Or does merely hearing the words “carbohydrate” and “fat” send you right back to the diet mentality? If so, go back to Module 2 and do the journal exercise now, and come back to this module when you’re feeling able to keep the diet thoughts in their place.
There are many ways to build a meal or snack with these components. The book Intuitive Eating has a plate diagram shaped like a peace sign (page 213 of the 3rd edition), which is one helpful way to visualize it.
The book came out before plate diagrams were really a thing, but now they’re everywhere—and the one I like the best is this one by my fellow non-diet dietitians at Green Mountain at Fox Run:
As you can see, there's a place for everything at this meal. You've got your grains and starchy vegetables, which provide the quick-acting carbohydrates. You've got your protein for the medium-length energy source, and to give the meal some power to satisfy. You've got your fats for the long-acting energy source and extra satisfaction. And of course you've got your fun food (which could be candy, cookies, or another dessert-type food, or maybe it's chips or another salty snack.)
The words around the outside of the plate are there to remind you that the meal takes place in the context of self-care, pleasure, social interaction, mindfulness (aka non-judgmental awareness), and compassion. Those things are always "at the table" in intuitive eating, even when you're considering nutrition.
But that's just one way to frame it—and remember, it's a guideline, not a rule.
Another way I like to conceptualize a balanced meal is to think about the fact that pretty much every cuisine in the world builds its meals with the same basic components of starch, protein, vegetable, and fat. Consider:
- Rice, meat or tofu, sauce, and vegetables in many Asian cuisines
- Pasta, meat, and tomato/vegetable sauce with olive oil in Italian cuisine
- Bread, meat or beans, and various vegetables and sauces in Ethiopian cuisine
- Soft pretzel, sausage, and sauerkraut in German cuisine
- Quiche with crust, eggs, and vegetables in French cuisine
- Corn tortillas, meat or beans, and peppers and onions in Mexican cuisine
And the list goes on and on. In my first career as a food writer, I sampled dozens of world cuisines, and was always struck by how these basic building blocks were repeated again and again the world over.
Many factors influence the food choices of a culture, of course, but it's no coincidence that cuisines around the world independently evolved with this pattern. Through trial and error, with little to no scientific knowledge of nutrition, the humans who created these diverse culinary traditions settled upon the ways of eating that worked best for them.
Journal Exercise 1: HOW A BALANCED MEAL OR SNACK FEELS
You won't be able to create balanced meals and snacks every time you eat, and that's totally OK! But you might notice that they do give you different energy levels than less-balanced options.
In your journal, reflect on the differences in how different meals and snacks make you feel. Try the following options (or any other food variations you enjoy) and record how long you feel satisfied by each, how long it takes to get hungry again, and any other differences you notice in your energy levels and taste preferences:
- Toast with jam
- Toast with peanut butter and jam
- Caesar salad
- Caesar salad with chicken or tofu
- Caesar salad with chicken or tofu plus a half sandwich
- Handful of raisins
- Handful of trail mix (fruit and nuts)
- Crackers and fruit
- Crackers and cheese
If you notice any differences, remember not to make them into rules (e.g. "if I'm going to eat crackers it must always be with cheese").
Instead, just use this information to help you in taking care of your needs each day. There are some times when you'll want to be sustained for several hours, and other times when you just want a little something to tide you over for an hour until your dinner reservation. Use your findings from this exercise to help you find food options that will fit the bill for each type of situation.
Be sure to keep honoring your desires and tastes in this process, too—remember that satisfaction is the driving force of intuitive eating. And forgive yourself if you're not able to select the "right" option for every situation, because nobody is! Just do the best you can to care for yourself, and know that there's no possible way to do it "perfectly."
- My Refinery29 article, 7 New Nutrition Tips, about a few general nutrition guidelines that might be worth incorporating into your intuitive eating routine. (If you find this stirring up any of the old rule-based thinking, remind yourself that these are optional guidelines, not rules. I refused to let them put "rules" in the headline for that reason, even though the word "rules" is always major clickbait!)
- Another of my Refinery29 articles, Why Detox Diets and Cleanses Always Fail, which explains why you never need to go on one of these unhealthy and ineffective diets.
- And in case you missed them in earlier modules, read my Refinery29 articles about why you don’t need to fear “processed” foods and what the "clean eating" movement gets wrong.
Further Viewing: Food Is Energy
Here's a fun little clip from one of my favorite comedies, Parks and Recreation, illustrating a key concept from this module.
Journal Exercise 2: POST-LESSON REFLECTION
In your journal, reflect on what you learned in this module.
- Are there particular aspects of gentle nutrition that seem more challenging for you than others?
- Which aspects (if any) were less challenging to incorporate?
- Did you have any diet-mentality thoughts that were re-triggered by this discussion of nutrition?
- How will gentle nutrition help you move closer to your goals and intentions?
Please provide your feedback to help us improve this module.