What is Holistic Nutrition and How Can it Help You on Your Journey - Whole-istic Living

What is Holistic Nutrition & How Can it Help You on Your Journey?

In recent years, the growing field of holistic nutrition and holistic eating have become hot topics!

More and more people are looking outside the box, beyond the conventional medicine scope, to explore holistic and alternative ways of supporting their health at a deeper level. 

Don’t get me wrong – as a holistic registered dietitian nutritionist who is on a mission to change the trajectory of healthcare for the better, of course I’m thrilled to see that holistic nutrition services are in higher demand than ever before!

But at the same time, as this field continues to grow and evolve, I understand it’s also becoming VERY loud out there.  

It can feel challenging and overwhelming for many to discern evidence-based facts from fictions and scams in a seemingly endless sea of online holistic health experts with conflicting opinions.

Speaking as a registered and licensed dietitian and nutritionist since 2011, with over a decade of clinical nutrition experience, and having simultaneously gone on a triumphant holistic healing journey first-hand, I’d love to share my perspectives, and insights on all things holistic nutrition with you! 

What is the meaning of “holistic”?

“Holistic” has become somewhat of a buzzword nowadays, but at the same time, it’s a great all-encompassing word to describe a very specific type of health and wellness philosophy and approach.

  • The word holistic is derived from the word “holism”, which is defined by Google in the medical context as “the treating of the whole person, taking into account mental and social factors, rather than just the physical symptoms of a disease.”

Google definition of holism

In other words, to be “holistic” is to go far beyond the scope of symptom management.  

“Holistic” can describe any kind of approach which entails seeing and treating the whole person (or a situation) through a multi-dimensional, 360-degree lens and from a place of understanding that everything is interconnected.

To practice or live holistically is to make recommendations or lifestyle choices that are altruistic (for the good of all), and not at the expense of any other systems within the mind/body/spirit.

What is nutrition?

“Nutrition” is the study, science, and application of food and nutrients (carbs, proteins, fats, calories, vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, etc.) as they pertain to health.  

Nutrition is a massive, complex, and ever-evolving field. There are many different niches, branches, and specialties within the field of nutrition, including (but not limited to):

  • Cardiovascular nutrition
  • Clinical nutrition
  • Community nutrition
  • Complementary alternative medicine 
  • Corporate wellness 
  • Diabetes nutrition
  • Eating disorder nutrition
  • Foodservice management
  • Functional nutrition
  • Geriatric nutrition
  • Gastrointestinal nutrition
  • Holistic nutrition
  • Oncology nutrition 
  • Pediatric nutrition
  • Preventive nutrition
  • Psychiatric nutrition
  • Renal nutrition
  • Sports nutrition
  • Weight management 
  • …and more!

Each individual niche or specialty within the nutrition field has its own unique path, purpose, protocols, providers, and a population of people in need of this specialty.

What is holistic nutrition?

Holistic nutrition is a branch of nutrition which entails treating each patient as a unique whole being, assessing and meeting their needs at the root-cause level.  It goes beyond clinical nutrition which is all about just reducing symptoms and keeping patients clinically stable.

To practice holistic nutrition is to provide nutritional interventions in such a way that people are being nourished and supported not just physically/biochemically, but also mentally, emotionally, and spiritually, in order to promote optimal health and wellbeing on all levels.

In the field of holistic nutrition there is a heavy emphasis on the concept of “food as medicine”, which entails lots of whole, nutrient-dense, minimally processed foods, meeting people where they are at, and an individualized, sustainable, root-cause approach.  

There’s also a big focus on gut health, since the gut is generally understood to directly or indirectly impact virtually every aspect of our health and wellbeing on some level.

Qualities and attributes of holistic nutrition 

The big-picture goal and purpose of holistic nutrition interventions is to restore balance and harmony in the mind, body and spirit over time.  

No two people are going to have the same needs, so not everybody is going to benefit from following the same cookie-cutter “diet”. (Some therapeutic diets CAN be helpful as a “backbone” to a more customized holistic nutrition protocol, only when appropriate. This is a judgment call, to be determined case-by-case by holistic nutrition practitioners.)

Still, I believe the degree to which any nutrition protocol can integrate the following “holistic nutrition fundamentals” will, on some level, determine the degree to which clients can live more optimally and feel more empowered:

  • Safe
  • Nourishing / nutrient-dense
  • Nutritionally balanced
  • Realistic
  • Sustainable
  • Good Quality
  • Enjoyable / tasty
  • Customized
  • Aligned with nature
  • Synergistic 
  • Complementary

If you’d like to learn more and go deeper into this, feel free to read more about holistic living here.

What does a holistic nutritionist do?

Think of it this way:  Weeds in a garden will keep growing until they are pulled by the very bottom roots out of the ground.  It is very easy to just pull the tops of the weeds above ground so they are no longer visible.  From a surface-level view, it would look like there are no weeds in the garden bed.  

  • In the field of holistic nutrition, we aim to dig deep and assess everything going on beneath the surface, invisible to the naked eye, to make sure those weeds are completely gone!

Check out more about the many roles of a holistic dietitian / holistic nutrition consultant here.

What is outside the scope of holistic nutrition?

While there may appear to be a great deal of overlap between holistic nutrition and other types of health and nutrition services at first glance, it’s important to keep in mind certain types of clinical interventions are outside the scope of holistic nutrition.  As a holistic nutrition provider it’s imperative to know where to draw the line.

Holistic nutrition interventions should enhance and complement, not replace, medical care and other modalities!  Many medical conditions (both acute and chronic) DO require further interventions that go beyond holistic nutrition. 

Collaborating with other allied health professionals is something I can’t emphasize enough.  I would never try to be my patient’s doctor, pharmacist, therapist, personal trainer, etc. – I refer out to other as needed who are formally trained, licensed, and qualified to help my clients.

(The same should go for holistic nutrition – if another healthcare provider has “dabbled” in this field but has not received formal training and certification in holistic nutrition, they are doing their patients a huge disservice to try and be their holistic nutritionist.) 

Holistic nutrition does not include or encompass any of the following:

  • Medical advice / medical diagnosis
  • Pharmaceutical prescriptions
  • Clinical nutrition / “medical nutrition therapy” (only dietitians can provide this)
  • Psychiatric consultation
  • Therapy
  • Personal training
  • Physical therapy
  • Speech-language therapy
  • Acupuncture
  • Spinal adjustments
  • Etc.

All of that said, a great holistic nutritionist will know when to refer out to other healthcare providers as needed (and vice versa)!

Holistic nutrition misconceptions and red flags

Given there’s a wide scope of practitioners and not a ton of regulation in the field of holistic nutrition (especially since literally anyone can call themselves a “nutritionist” or offer nutrition coaching), there are a few misconceptions and red flags I’d like to point out.

A holistic nutrition practitioner should never do any of the following (and if they do, I encourage you to politely run in the other direction):

Unfortunately there can sometimes be a fine line and even a bit of overlap between a well-meaning practitioner and someone who is not completely qualified to help you in a certain way. 

That said, before embarking on a holistic nutrition journey, please make sure to do your research and receive holistic nutrition consultation only from someone who has received proper training and licensure (and ideally someone who is also experienced and endorsed by happy clients) in the field of holistic nutrition!

Who can practice holistic nutrition?

Some holistic nutrition practitioners are often practicing simultaneously as registered dietitians, naturopaths, chiropractors, acupuncturists, functional medical doctors, or other types of allied healthcare providers who have received continuing education specific to holistic and functional nutrition.

  • Most holistic nutritionists are actually not registered dietitians, and most registered dietitians are not holistic nutritionists – but there can still be some overlap! 😉
    • While some dietitians are cynical about the idea of holistic nutrition practitioners not being dietitians, I personally learned a great deal from working 1:1 with a holistic nutrition consultant for several years on my healing journey as a young dietitian, and I wouldn’t be where I am today were it not for all of her support and guidance.

Technically anyone else could also call themselves a “holistic nutritionist”.  However, I’ve found that most people who choose to practice as holistic nutritionists do opt to receive some kind of training and certification before working with clients.  (Thank goodness!)

How is holistic nutrition different from other nutrition niches and specialties? 

Most types of nutrition interventions in mainstream healthcare are reactive versus proactive, in that a person’s nutritional status is not addressed until a related problem has surfaced. 

For example, in hospital settings as well as in many outpatient clinics, consultation with a dietitian isn’t even covered by most health insurances unless it’s deemed “medical necessary” by the insurance policy criteria. A few examples include, but are not limited to:

  • They have screened to be “high risk” for malnutrition
  • They just had a heart attack
  • They have poorly managed or newly-diagnosed diabetes
  • They have kidney disease or kidney failure
  • They are on a new medication with potential food-drug interactions and must be notified

For people with chronic debilitating health issues which are not functional (not requiring hospitalization), it can feel incredibly invalidating to be told you aren’t sick enough to receive nutritional services.

On the other hand, in both holistic and functional nutrition, the primary focus is to be preventive, proactive and sustainable with nourishing food, sound supplement protocols, and holistic lifestyle changes so that issues will be less likely to arise – or when they do, to nip them at the root of origin whenever possible.

“An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” – Benjamin Franklin

The key distinguishing characteristics of a holistic and/or functional nutrition approach is the goal to promote optimal wellbeing and to enhance quality of life on deeper levels, versus doing just enough to mask symptoms or keep someone clinically stable/comfortable.

Is holistic nutrition different from functional nutrition?

The field of holistic nutrition can also be considered similar to or sometimes even interchangeable with functional nutrition, since there’s a lot of overlap. 

The key difference between holistic nutrition and functional nutrition is that holistic nutrition is strictly behavioral/culinary, while functional nutrition also involves special nutrition lab testing and requires more clinical competency from the practitioner. (Learn more about functional nutrition here!)

Final thoughts: is a holistic nutrition approach right for you?

While I’m obviously a huge fan of the fascinating world of holistic and functional nutrition, I understand it still isn’t for everyone!  And that’s 100% okay.

Change is hard, and getting to a place where you can implement holistic nutrition and lifestyle changes consistently in a way that moves the needle on your health journey is definitely not easy.

But, on the other hand, as a wise man once said…

“The easy way is the hard way, and the hard way is the easy way.” – The Dalai Lama

Let me explain:

  • Trying to cheat the system by opting for a quick-fix (aka the “easy way”, or the path of least resistance) may provide immediate relief.  However, this usually isn’t without some kind of expense or “collateral damage”. 
    • For example, taking Prilosec or other acid-reducing medications for more than 14 days can potentially lead to small intestinal bacterial overgrowth, irritable bowel syndrome, nutritional deficiencies, and/or other issues caused by too-low stomach acid left unchecked.
  • When symptoms are only managed on the surface-level, people get short-term relief but stay stuck long-term. (It’s like living life on a hamster wheel, not really moving forward.)
  • When surface-level symptoms are traced back to the origin and addressed holistically, it’s considered the “hard way”. The perk is that symptoms are more likely to go away or not come back as frequently or as severely.

While I’m a big fan of the holistic path which requires more investment up-front, I also respect that “quality of life” means something different for everyone.

For many people, a great quality of life is to stay inside the comfort zone. To change as little as possible, indulging in choices that provide instant gratification and “quick fixes”. These people choose the path of least resistance (the “blue pill”), which requires the least amount of effort and discomfort.

For me, a great quality of life means:

  • More joy and quality time with my family and friends.
  • The opportunity to do purposeful and sacred work.
  • Spiritual growth.
  • Having more energy than I know what to do with most days.
  • Having the mental clarity and focus required to work towards big goals and dreams.
  • Having the means to travel – not just the time and finances, but also great health.
  • Tasty, nourishing meals and snacks that help me to feel like the best version of me.  
  • Having medical freedom & autonomy to do things my way.

Taking the “red pill” and choosing the holistic nutrition path drastically improved my quality of life.  I also hold no judgment for others who want different things than me. 

Morals and basic human etiquette aside, there’s truly no right or wrong way to live.  It’s all about what feels most in alignment for YOU.

If holistic nutrition and holistic living ain’t your cup of tea, sie la vie! 

If you’d like to embark on a holistic nutrition journey with someone who has been there and done that, and you’d like to address your health concerns at the root-level, let’s chat!

XO – Jenna 

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