Count your calories. Mind your macros. Measure your portions. Weigh your food. Watch your carbs. Don't eat processed food. Limit sugar, and flour, and fried food. Don't you dare get sprinkles on your ice cream, and actually don't eat dairy or gluten or soy or nonorganic strawberries! Are you overwhelmed by all these restrictive food rules? If so, welcome to food freedom.
What Is Food Freedom?
Food freedom is a term used by those in the intuitive eating and antidiet movement. Kirsten Ackerman, MS, RD, CDN, who hosts the Intuitive Bites podcast and identifies as a fat-positive dietitian, said, "food freedom is being able to experience the pleasure of food while not being fixated, overwhelmed, and stressed out by it." She added that food freedom is about allowing food to be joyful, but not allowing it to take over our lives.
Licensed mental health counselor, Molly Bahr, LMHC, who's also an intuitive eating counselor who specializes in HAES (health at every size) and is fat-positive, added that "food freedom is the experience of liberating ourselves from chronic dieting and adhering to rigid rules about when, what, how often, and how much to eat." As we heal our relationship with food and our body, we're able to enjoy the food we want to eat and then move on, allowing us to spend our time, energy, brain space, and money on things that really matter.
Registered dietitian Brenna O'Malley, creator of the health blog The Wellful, told POPSUGAR, she thinks of food freedom as being in a place with your body and with your relationship to food, which puts you back in the driver's seat, where you're making choices from a place of what feels good to you instead of feeling controlled by food or fear.
For Nicole Cruz, RDN, who specializes in helping clients make peace with food and their bodies, food freedom is getting invited to a friend's barbecue and not worrying about whether there will be something there you can eat. She said, it's showing up and eating whatever looks good without feeling guilty or thinking, "I have to get back on track or work this off tomorrow." It's eating the food you want and not feeling like it's calling you or like you can't stop eating. Food freedom means you can go to an event and focus on enjoying the company more than thinking about the food.
Are There Different Levels of Food Freedom?
Absolute food freedom doesn't just happen overnight. Bahr said, this process has many levels to it, and everyone is different in the way they approach it. Many of us have spent years or even decades with diet culture, so it's hard to just flip a switch and instantly find food freedom.
Absolute food freedom can only happen after healing your relationship with food, explained Brianne Collette, RD. There could be stages leading up to it where you're learning how to do so. Moving to food freedom and away from dieting and tracking your intake can be very scary, so the process may be gradual as you slowly get rid of food rules, recognize that it's OK, and start to let go of more.
What Happens When We Have Food Freedom?
Achieving food freedom means no longer feeling guilt and shame for eating foods we like, Bahr said. There's no more spending time counting, tracking, measuring, or "playing the game of food Tetris because we trust an app more than we trust our bodies." With food freedom, we're able to honor our hunger and fullness cues without constantly questioning or judging them.
When you have food freedom, you can make food choices without rules and view all food neutrally, as opposed to good or bad, explained Cruz. Food will no longer define your worth because you'll feel the same about yourself whether you eat an apple or cookie. Food will have an appropriate amount of space in your life, but won't be prioritized above everything else. You'll no longer fear food and will say yes or no based on your preference, not based on rules.
And it's more than just about food, Collette said. "It's being able to say yes to spontaneous date nights without worrying about calories. It's about enjoying food beyond just fuel, as pleasure and comfort, and most of all, not letting it dictate how you run your life," she said. Food is a vital part of our existence and we need it every single day. With food freedom, food no longer dictates how you feel about yourself day in and day out.
"Our culture supports a disordered relationship to food and our bodies that normalizes food and body fixation," said Ackerman. Ultimately, food and body fixation steal our time away from engaging in aspects of our lives that are meaningful and fulfilling (our passions and our relationships, for example). When we find food freedom, we open up our time and energy to be spent on those things again.
Bahr reassured that we were all born with this ability to eat "normally" and we can return to this. Just as we can trust our other natural body cues that tell us when we're thirsty, tired, or have to use the bathroom, we can learn to trust our body when we're hungry, what sounds satisfying, and when we've had enough.
Is Food Freedom the Same Thing as Intuitive Eating?
Intuitive Eating is a tool for achieving food freedom, Ackerman explained. The framework of intuitive eating provides 10 principles to support your journey to healing your relationship with food and your body. They include rejecting diet mentality, honoring your hunger and fullness, finding satisfaction in food, and coping with emotions without food. Intuitive eating is a method and food freedom is the goal, which means food freedom can be achieved in other ways, without necessarily following the 10 principles of intuitive eating.
Note that the 10 principles of intuitive eating also encompass more than food, Collette said. Intuitive eating also involves body image and exercise — two of the principles are respect your body, and exercise to feel good.
What Are Obstacles That Can Get in the Way of Having Food Freedom?
"The journey back to normalizing our eating is about letting go of food rules, giving ourselves permission to eat all foods we want, and uprooting our internalized fat phobia and weight bias," Bahr said. It's important to educate ourselves about diet culture and to understand why unrealistic beauty standards and weight stigma are so harmful — emotionally and physically. This process can take a lot longer than you think it will — it may feel really hard and scary and that's OK.
"I don't know anyone who can let go of every food rule and practice all 10 principles of intuitive eating right away," Bahr said. When we gather information about intuitive eating and learn about diet culture, and discover why diets don't work long-term, it will inspire us to slowly begin to let go of things that keep us in diet mentality. We can gradually feel more comfortable with not using food tracking apps or fitness trackers, not weighing ourselves, and not following diet- and weight-focused social media accounts. Then we can begin to give ourselves permission to eat the foods we want and honor our hunger without judgement. It's important to be patient with yourself through this sometimes difficult process.
Can You Have Food Freedom and Still Want to Lose Weight?
I think it's important to add that the food freedom and intuitive eating movement aren't here to shame anyone who wants to lose weight, Collette said. But in order to heal your emotional and mental relationship with food, she said it's helpful to put weight loss on the back burner. "I don't believe it's possible to try to reach food freedom while still attempting to lose weight," Collette added. "Weight loss inherently means restriction, which is quite the opposite of food freedom. So this might actually be a really great first step — putting weight loss on the back burner and working through it as you go!"
You may be familiar with the term food freedom from a book written by Melissa Hartwig, creator of Whole30, called Food Freedom Forever. After completing the Whole30 program — which is restrictive, but designed to only be done for 30 days — Hartwig suggests that this is the next plan people can use to maintain the healthy habits they made during the past month.
Hartwig does have a similar definition of food freedom as intuitive eating and antidiet experts. "Food freedom is feeling in control of the food that you eat, instead of food controlling you," Hartwig said. She added that having food freedom means taking the morality out of food, and recognizing you are not a "good" or "bad" person based on what you're eating. She said, "True food freedom means you never again feel powerless over food."
Bahr hasn't read Food Freedom Forever, but said that if you're following a plan that includes rules on what, when, or how much to eat, you can't have true food freedom. Repairing our relationships with food and our body, and trusting our own intuition and body cues so we rely on ourselves is what's truly freeing.