A Hierarchy of Food & Nutrition
You want to improve your health and nutrition, but can’t seem to make it past week two of avoiding sweets. Or, you know it is important to get in five daily servings of vegetables, but just can’t stomach yet another kale smoothie. Or, you are feeling sad, hopeless, and riddled with guilt at the thought of having to eat your grandmother’s baking over the Christmas season... Sound familiar? Trust me, it’s not just you.
Often nutrition advice jumps right into super foods and rigid food rules. The “eat-this-don’t-eat-that” school of thinking. However, this type of guidance skips over some precursory concepts of human thought, behavior, and [to put it frankly] basic physiology. It is important, and so much more effective, to start where you are.
Maslow’s ‘Hierarchy of Needs’ is a theory of human motivation depicted as a pyramid, implying that before we can achieve the peak of self-actualization, we have to meet our most fundamental needs at the base. If this hierarchy is applied to nutrition, we can start to understand our behaviour around food. A decade ago, Ellyn Satter, a famous dietitian (yes, famous dietitians exist in my world), published a theory of just that – a ‘Hierarchy of Food Needs’, but it has yet to be fully recognized for the ground-breaking theory that it is. So today, I want to take a stab at prioritizing food needs as I see them, and show you how I like to counsel nutrition.
1. Healthy/Normal Relationship with Food:
Normal eating can be described as flexible, versus rigid or black-and-white. It can vary based on your hunger, schedule, proximity to food, and your emotions. Though eating is complex, food choices need to be disentangled from feelings of guilt, shame, self-loathing, and unworthiness, to support mental health and revert from using food as a coping mechanism. So that food can be just food, and not a moral code to live up to. When you live with a plethora of food rules dictating your every mouthful, it is physiologically impossible to avoid cravings and bingeing on “forbidden foods” for comfort, thereby negating any nutrition goal you are striving to achieve, and causing you to feel quite down about yourself. A healthy relationship with food means giving yourself full permission to eat foods that you enjoy and to trust your body enough to make up for your mistakes in eating, instead of dwelling on them.
2. Eating Enough:
Eating enough to fuel your body, more specifically eating enough throughout the day, is a key first step towards improved nutrition. What happens when we intentionally (or unintentionally) limit our food intake during the day, is an overcompensation of food intake later that evening. Typically, this overcompensation is when we are tired, run-down, and can’t be bothered to prepare a balanced meal. Hanger (“hunger + anger”) also ensues and makes it hard to slow down, choose consciously, and listen to those subtle cues of fullness. What I have just described is the ‘restrict-binge cycle’, and you can prevent it by choosing to fuel your body every 3-4 waking hours with a combination of carbohydrate, protein, fat, and deliciousness. Each macronutrient plays a role in maintaining your energy and function, and deliciousness is imperative to feel satisfied…because restriction not only means limiting total quantity of food, but also limiting the types of foods allowed.
3. General Nutrition:
Once a healthy relationship with food is established, it is a lot easier to approach healthy eating with the right intentions. Healthy eating to me means choosing mostly whole foods that are minimally processed and as local as possible. It means a daily variety of brightly colored fruits and vegetables, complex whole grains, and a combination of vegetarian and animal proteins. It also means enjoying food prepared with loved ones, savouring a few bites of sweetness mid-afternoon, the occasional over-indulgence, and of course fermented foods for gut health!
4. Therapeutic Nutrition:
Targeting health concerns or conditions with specific ways of eating - the tip of the pyramid! A few examples would be choosing anti-inflammatory foods for Rheumatoid Arthritis, or low FODMAP eating for Irritable Bowel Syndrome, or the ketogenic diet for glycemic management and Epilepsy, and the list goes on…
So, with that being said, my holiday message to you is to start where you are. It is okay to be right there. Be compassionate with yourself, and know that when you are ready to move up the pyramid, you can.
Further reading and special thanks for inspiring this article:
-Satter, E. (2007). Hierarchy of Food Needs. J Nutr Educ Behav, 39(S), 187-188.
-Tribole, E., & Resch, E. (1995). Intuitive Eating. New York, NY: St. Martin’s Press.