I came across the idea of Essentialism a couple of years ago in a book by Greg Mckeown. It taps into the idea that in order to make our highest possible contribution to the world, we need to separate the external noise of a world that is constantly telling us to do more, get more, and take on more, from our internal voice so we choose to spend our time and energy on things that really matter.
If we apply this idea to our relationship with food, Eating Essentialism involves separating the external noise of a diet culture that constantly tells us to restrict this or cut out that, from the internal wisdom of our body.
External noise includes:
- Weight loss plans in the media
- Cherry picked data on nutrition
- Diet talk with friends
- Blog posts on good and bad foods
- Recipe books encouraging restrictive eating
- Uneducated nutrition advice on social media
Internal wisdom includes:
- Hunger cues
- Fullness cues
- Feelings of satisfaction
- Food preferences
- How different foods make you feel
What is Eating Essentialism?
Eating essentialism is about only focusing on the elements of eating that are absolutely necessary. So, rather than worrying about which lunch option has fewer carbs or whether your oats have gluten in (unless you are diagnosed coeliac), you can channel your time, energy and effort into more meaningful goals.
Eating essentialism involves two things:
- Giving up restrictive dieting and food rules
- Eating enough to meet your needs
And that’s it. No foods to avoid. No counting points or calories. No restricting food groups. No only eating organic. No eating at specific times. No micromanaging your meals. No obsession. No self-doubt. No confusion. Simply putting all your nutrition knowledge and food rules to one side and making sure you are eating enough. And if you do this, without restricting any food groups, you will still get all the nutrients your body needs whilst also giving you a taste for the freedom that comes with Fear-Free Eating.
The simplicity of Eating Essentialism is what makes it beautiful. Some people only need to do it for a few days and it works like little reset button for their relationship with food, before adding in other elements of intuitive eating (e.g. finding satisfaction in food, coping with emotions without using food, incorporating gentle nutrition…). Other people find it helpful to do for longer to break the obsessive habits they’ve built up around food, especially if they have spent years caught up in diet and nutrition obsession.
In truth, although Eating Essentialism is simple, that doesn’t mean it’s easy. It’s a cold turkey way of removing any extreme emotion (fear, anxiety, guilt, disgust…) you have around food by facing it head on.
It can be particularly helpful if you are going through orthorexia (an unhealthy obsession with healthy food). Statistics show that 7-58% of the population suffer from orthorexia which means that many of us are going through life allowing our fears about food to disrupt our everyday functioning and cause us distress and anxiety (If you think you or a client of loved one may be going through Orthorexia you can get a better understanding by taking the self-test: The Orthorexia Self-Test).
Of course there is nothing wrong with only eating organic fruit, buying biodynamic vegetables, and spending a lot of money on ‘superfoods’ but we are often doing this out of fear (caused by the diet industry and media). In terms of eating essentialism, none of this is necessary. And, if you have a fear-based relationship with food, letting go of obsession over the healthfulness of food can be extremely liberating. You don’t need to eat a perfect diet – as long as you are eating enough food and getting enough nutrients, that is good enough.
With Eating Essentialism, you only have to think about two things: 1. No food rules and, 2. Eating enough. If any other thoughts pop into your head about calories or protein or carbs or restriction or skipping a meal, you simply have to remind yourself that, for now, you have committed to only focusing on the two principles of Eating Essentialism so you can direct your energy to areas of your life other than food.
Why is Eating Essentialism important?
We are constantly being bombarded with nutrition information and dietary advice which often leads us to feel like we have to eat all the right foods in exactly the right quantities and get all our macronutrients and micronutrients in just the right amounts and eat our superfoods and drink our smoothies but we shouldn’t eat too much and we should definitely avoid all ‘bad’ foods because they’re toxic but what is considered a bad food changes depending on who is giving the advice and the latest scientific research at the time so it’s best just to avoid most things and restrict our calories and only eat at certain times of the day and… Do you see where I’m going? Can you see just how easy it can be to get caught up in a state of nutritional confusion? And, unfortunately, so many people do. A recent survey taken by over 1000 Americans found that 78% of them encounter conflicting information on what to eat, leading to 56% of them doubting their food choices.
This is why Eating Essentialism is so important. Because it allows you to take a break from consistently doubting your food choices and instead simplify your approach to eating.
Eating Essentialism is a tool that I would recommend using until you have a more neutral relationship with food and nutrition. And you know you have a neutral relationship with food when eating an apple has the same emotional meaning as eating a slice of apple pie.
A lot of Eating Essentialism is about unlearning. It’s about putting any focus on nutrition and dieting and weight loss and muscle gain on the backburner until any intense feelings around food reduce and you no longer feel like specific foods or food groups have control over you (because you no longer feel the need to avoid them or binge on them).
Is Eating Essentialism for me?
Do you struggle with information overload when it comes to nutrition?
Do you feel overwhelmed with what you ‘should’ eat?
Do you spend a lot of time researching and thinking about food and nutrition?
Do you worry about making the ‘wrong’ choices when it comes eating?
If you answered yes to any of the above questions, then Eating Essentialism could be helpful for you to explore.
If it feels like too much of a jump, then explore some of the other Non-Diet Eating Strategies.
Practical stuff to help you embrace Eating Essentialism
If you would like to explore Eating Essentialism then ask yourself the following questions:
1. What food rules do I have?
e.g. no carbs for breakfast, no chocolate in the house, counting macros, staying under 1500 calories a day… (there is more information on food rules here).
2. How much do I need to eat to meet my needs?
Think of this as the absolute minimum amount. You can work this out however feels best for you – asking someone you trust who has a healthy relationship with food, hunger and fullness (if you are in touch with your appetite, calories (if you already count calories), portion size, how much you need to eat to feel the way you want to feel, working with a dietician or nutritionist… And always remember this is the MINIMUM you need to eat. Dieting works on maximum amounts of food. Eating Essentialism is about the minimum amount of food you need to feel your best.
3. How long do you want to use Eating Essentialism as a tool for?
I generally encourage two approaches here. One being, you use Eating Essentialism until you have a more neutral approach to food and stick to Eating Essentialism for however long that takes. Or, you could commit to Eating Essentialism for a certain time frame if committing to it for an unknown period seems too much right now. If this feels more doable for you then I’d recommend exploring Eating Essentialism for 2-3 days to start off with (as eating without food rules for any longer than that to begin with can feel overwhelming). Then, if you want, you can return to the safety of your food rules again. Next time, use Eating Essentialism for 4-5 days, and keep increasing the time until you up to a couple of weeks of Eating Essentialism. By this point, it is likely you won’t feel the need to go back to your old food rules because you have tasted the freedom that comes with living without them.