What Is “Gentle Nutrition”?

Photographed by Phoebe Chuason.
Every few months, a particular quote pops up on my Instagram feed, usually printed in bold, no-nonsense font across a white background: “Every time you eat or drink, you are either feeding disease or fighting it.” No flowery photo backgrounds here; this line is presented with the gravity of a Malcolm X quote, though it is, in fact, attributed to Heather Morgan, a self-proclaimed health expert and owner of the (now defunct) website, Muffin Top Makeover. I don’t want to diss Morgan too hard, because I don’t know much about her, except that she has no standard degrees in nutrition and “has been making over muffintops [sic] for nearly 10 years.” But I do give her credit for producing a quote that perfectly encapsulates the problem with nutrition today — or, rather, our idea of nutrition. Namely, that it is a weapon to be used for or against yourself. Here’s the dictionary definition of nutrition according to Merriam-Webster: “the act or process of nourishing or being nourished.” Both these quotes are quite simple, yet they convey two entirely different messages about what nutrition is. The latter: Eat food and be nourished. The former: Eat only the right food or die. When I was a hardcore dieter, I clung to that concept. I’d been to several nutritionists (some legit and others more muffin top-y) over the years and, like most of us, had come to conflate the idea of nutrition with dieting. Nutrition plans were just diet plans you paid more money for. Nutritionists gave me more specifics to obsess over in addition to carbs and calories, like macronutrients and soluble versus insoluble fiber. They let me think I was “embracing a healthy lifestyle” rather than “losing 52 pounds as fast as I fucking can...or at least before my birthday.” But it all amounted to the same. Nutrition = dieting, health = weight loss, and therefore, every time I ate or drank, I was either fighting for my skinny, healthy, happy life — or working against it. Simple as that. It wasn’t until I quit dieting and began learning intuitive eating — an approach with no food rules whatsoever — that I figured out the truth: Just because it sounds simple doesn’t mean it’s true. (See: “eating fat makes you fat!”) And god knows, the things we see on Instagram aren’t necessarily as they are in real life. (See: everything ever posted on Instagram.) When I began learning intuitive eating, I had to give up on all those simple not-quite-truths about nutrition, and instead, learn common sense. Enter: “Gentle nutrition.” “We live in the fantasy of, Oh, wouldn’t it be wonderful if I could eat all that food? I'm not supposed to — but wouldn’t it be wonderful?” According Elyse Resch, MS, RDN, CEDRD, FIAEDP, FADA, that’s how most of us see it. In addition to those credentials, she is also the co-author of Intuitive Eating, the primary resource on intuitive eating. I reached out to her about this touchy subject, not only because she’s a nutrition pro, but because in all my years practicing and preaching intuitive eating, nutrition is a source of constant questions (or panic). Here are some questions I hear on the regular:
So nutrition just goes out the window? If I could eat whatever I want, without restriction, then I’d just eat pizza forever. But what about your health?! (Answer: No, no you wouldn’t, and would you like to see my cholesterol score? Seriously, I’ll email it to you. I’m pretty braggy about it.)
Photographed by Sarah Balch.
All this worry, Resch believes, is a result of restriction. We all live in a world that says certain foods are forbidden (that list seems to grow longer by the year) and others are allowed in moderation — another word that’s lost its meaning. (“Moderation” is code for “restriction” these days. Rarely do you hear advice to add a food in moderation.) That’s it. There are no foods we can all agree are 100% allowed at any time, in any amount we desire. And of course, any substance can harm you in the right amount — even air and water. But unless you suffer from a very specific psychological disorder, you’re not going to OD on water. We know that. The same is true for food, yet, somehow we haven’t gotten that message. With a hesitant client, Resch often starts with a basic question: "What do you think it would be like if all you could eat was your favorite treat?"

“Let's say is a hot fudge sundae. That’s all that you can eat, just hot fudge sundaes for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, every day this week," she says. "What do you think that would be like? Inevitably, people go, ‘Well, that would be really great, but I bet after a while I'd get a little sick of them.'” Duh, right? The truth is that sundaes are legal and available, almost anywhere, anytime. The problem is, we don’t walk around with that sense of constant availability in our minds. Instead, we’re all trained to think of sundaes as of an exceedingly rare, almost criminal indulgence. That’s why the primary goal with intuitive eating is reversing that illogical thinking until you have a sincere and total permission to eat hot fudge sundaes — to eat anything — without judgment, restriction, or anxiety. “Then, over time, we start to realize it's just a hot fudge sundae,” says Resch. “It's not this golden ring on the merry-go-round.” Then, and only then, can nutrition come into play. Because, reminder: Nutrition has nothing to do with judgment, restriction, or anxiety. It has to do with nourishment. When we have that internalized permission to eat, “we start to have that natural toddler's desire to have a full range of foods,” says Resch. “You start craving a piece of chicken or you start craving a salad,” she adds. “Of course, if you tell someone that’s all they can eat, then they're going to rebel against it.” This is why permission is the first step for beginners and consciously focusing on nutrition is last. It’s not because it’s less important but because it’s more advanced. “The problem is that people tend to want to think about nutrition too soon," she says, "before they’ve really made peace with all foods.” Again, Resch’s entire career is based on eating in a healthy, normal way. She knows the value of nutrition to our well-being and longevity. But she’s seen up-close just how this concept, which should be an empowering tool, has been perverted into a weapon. The only solution is neutrality. “Of course we know that green jelly beans are not as nutritious as broccoli. However, there's got to be the same emotional reaction to whatever the food is,” says Resch. “Until you can do that, you can't think about nutrition.” And when you do, it’s important to do so make sure that peace accord remains in place.
Photographed by Sarah Balch.
Resch says it’s very clear when a client is ready to talk about nutrition. “When I've worked with someone for a period of time and they've fully like rejected diet mentality, they'll never go on another diet, all foods are equal, they’ll come in one day and say, ‘You know what? I kind of feel like crap. I think I'd like to feel a little bit better.’ Or, 'You know, I want to get pregnant in a year or two and I think I want to take better care of my body.’” Often, a lifelong dieter has to learn the basics from scratch. “I ask them how much they know about nutrition to begin with, because people think they do, but they really don’t know much,” says Resch. “A lot of people truly think carbs aren't good for you or gluten isn't good for you. I try to dispel any of their distortions, the cosmetic distortions around food.” In addition to nutrients, they talk about goals and lifestyle choices; Resch reinforces the idea that while there are fundamental facts, nutrition isn’t a one-size-fits-all thing. For example, “You don’t want to eat animals?" she says. "That’s okay, you can find protein in plants. I always tend to go from a place of what can you put in rather than what you should take out.” If we’re given the necessary support and all the options in the world — all the sundaes, green jelly beans, and broccoli — most of us will naturally be drawn to balanced eating. “Ultimately, people want to feel better,” says Resch. She uses the term “gentle,” because that’s what’s sorely lacking in our mainstream concept of nutrition — and fitness, and indeed, anything health-related. “There's really no evidence that ‘hardcore’ so-called nutrition actually increases health,” says Resch. “Furthermore, I have a belief that the more obsessive one is about it, the more they have anxiety, raising their cortisol levels, which is actually worse for your health than if you just have the piece of cake.” Sometimes, it takes a lot of work to get back to basics. But the good news is, it’s possible. Our bodies are born with the instincts and tools to guide us toward balanced eating, though nurture, in our diet-centric culture, sometimes intervenes on nature. We can get lost and we might need help. But working for a rational, nutritious way of eating is work worth doing — unlike dieting, which is a losing battle every time. It’s not about feeding or fighting disease, but feeding yourself and fighting the BS in your mind (and maybe the BS on Instagram, too). When you do that, victory is all but guaranteed. “When you have that total freedom to really to pay attention, to notice hunger come up, and eat for it, it's fabulous,” says Resch. “It is awesome, in the true sense of the word.” The Anti-Diet Project is an ongoing series about intuitive eating, sustainable fitness, and body positivity. You can follow Kelsey's journey on Twitter and Instagram at @mskelseymiller, or right here on Facebook. Curious about how it all got started? Check out the whole column, right here.

More from Diet & Nutrition

R29 Original Series