Updated: Apr 11, 2022
Intentional Nutrition is an approach to food that places the power squarely in your hands by asking you to make choices with knowledge, purpose and intentionality. It emphasizes meal planning but does not require meal prep (unless meal prep is your thing or your schedule demands it. Then it's just smart.). There's a chance to enjoy foods that are cultural, social or celebratory because we've planned to enjoy them. You don't have to calculate the number of bites of a cookie you can have but I do want you to think about what your day looks like and choose foods that make you feel good overall.
How to Practice Intentional Nutrition
1. Identify what you want food/nutrition to do for you.
Things Food Can Help With
I want to feel energized and focused
I want to protect my health
I want to get off these meds!
I want to perform better
I want to prevent a chronic disease (not all can be prevented but most)
I want to manage my weight
I want to help the environment
I want to support my immune system
I care about animal welfare
I want to take care of myself
These are all valid goals that nutrition can help you work on. I think it's important to differentiate among things that nutrition can help with and what it can't. Expectations are important so that you put effort where it counts.
Things Food Can't Solve
I want to feel good about my body
I want to be more consistent
I want to be happy
I want to look like <insert a model or athlete's name>
I want to cure this incurable chronic disease
2. Adopt Principles that Support Quality Nutrition
At a minimum, adopt a whole food diet. Make this concept something you value and prioritize. This is diet that is mostly comprised of actual, natural foods with minimally processed foods to complement the meals. Mostly is defined by 85-90%. You might find this style of eating identified as "clean eating" but there's no cleanliness/morality/righteousness associated with it so don't let the term bug you. I include it so you can find recipes easily ;)
If you want to take it a step up and really narrow in on health protective factors, adopt a whole food, plant based (WFPB) diet. This is a diet that is made up of whole foods, with minimally processed foods, that emphasizes plants! Like really emphasizes it. Fruits, veggies, tubers, beans, nuts, seeds, greens, grains, etc. You can find a full list in the Eating Guide. This nutrition approach minimizes, or completely excludes, animal products but there are no "rules". It's your life so it's your rules!
Of Note: I do suggest removing dairy entirely as it is not a species appropriate food (nor life stage appropriate past 2 years of age).
Real WFPB Meal Examples (these were damn delicious, pretty & nutritious)
What about Meat in a WFPB Diet?
People who eat a whole food, plant-based diet may have a dish seasoned with meat or enjoy something cultural a few times a year or they may abstain entirely. To really capture the health protective benefits of a WFPB diet, it's encouraged to abstain as much as possible. Plant foods provide lots of protein and some common replacements include lentils, beans, tempeh or tofu. A more processed option (but still pretty simple) is seitan.
What About Oil
There's a lot of controversy out there about oils on a WFPB diet. Technically speaking, oil is not a whole food. When oils are made, the fat is removed from a whole food (examples: olives -> olive oil, nuts -> nut butter, coconut -> coconut oil) which means some of the nutrition was lost in the processing (mainly the fiber, the vitamins, minerals and the experience of eating it). Oil is a fat and fats are concentrated so they hold a lot of sway on the overall energy a dish contains. More on that later.
On the flip side, oils do have a lot of benefits including satiety at a meal, taste and mouthfeel of a dish, keeping herbs and spices on foods during cooking, plus there's the whole Mediterranean diet thing with years of research showing people who follow a true Mediterranean diet live long, healthy lives. So how can the WFPB world (strongly evidence based) and the Mediterranean (and the Blue Zones) diets (also strongly evidenced based) worlds collide on this? It's more likely that the people who follow a Mediterranean or Blue Zone diet including oils also have a lot of other healthy lifestyle factors. Their lives are rich and full of unprocessed whole foods; they are active; they have strong social ties; they have purpose. The oil is an important part of their calorie intake but is not the star of their meals.
Suggested Nutrition Principles to Adopt
Eat a whole food diet as often as possible and use minimally processed foods to compliment these meals.
Eat mostly, or entirely, plants. Foods that are derived from plants are the stars of the mealtime.
3. Take Control of Your Nutrition Sources
So how do these beautiful whole, mostly plant foods, become meals?
Enter Meal Planning. The intentionality of meal planning:
Knowing what, or where, your food is at any given point is empowering.
It secures steady energy sources.
It boosts confidence that what is being eaten is balanced and supports goals.
It's tasty and well thought out.
It will make you feel good.
It is vital to intentional nutrition.
Meal Planning 101
Meal planning is simply mapping out what you will be eating and where it will be coming from (home, a store, a restaurant). Once we know what needs to be cooked, a grocery list can be create so those items are on hand. Doing this every week results in menu options for you to choose from each day or to assign an option to a day. It accommodates events, busy or easy days, and different work places.
Mastering this skill is absolutely necessary for quality nutrition. Start practicing as soon as you can.
If it works better for your schedule and stress, you can prepare things ahead of time so they are ready to eat throughout the week. Meal prep may change the recipes you select for the week. Big batch prep will change the volume. But it can also be done on a small scale: for one set of meals for the week (say, just breakfast) or parts of a meal (cooking all the grains ahead of time). It's your choice what and how much happens before but I encourage you to do what makes the week easy for you. Stress is real and this can reduce it!
4. Embrace the Process
This is less of a step and more of a chance for me to remind you that you will make mistakes. I still make mistakes. Just because something goes wrong, doesn't mean it's over. Assess what happened and adjust to do better! We learn. We try again. This is how you can master meal planning, intentional nutrition, and take control of your health. Trial, success and error, then a routine emerges. You got this.