Nutrition pros say it's the key to developing a neutral relationship with food — and your body.

By Iris Goldsztajn
Feb 10, 2020 @ 5:00 pm
Lumina/Stocksy

If you’ve spent any time on Instagram lately, you may have come across the term “food freedom” tacked to photos of ice cream sundaes, selfies, and inspirational quotes. Influencers and dietitians are promoting the concept as the solution to diet culture; a way to heal our relationship with food and stop associating eating with feelings of guilt or lack of control.

Still, there is plenty of room for confusion around food freedom, even among nutrition professionals. For instance: Should everyone be practicing it? Is it the same as intuitive eating? And how can it be used to combat a culture so obsessed with restrictive diets? Here, we answer all your questions about food freedom.

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What is food freedom?

At the heart of the food freedom movement is the idea that, until we undo all the insidious rules for eating that diet culture imposes on us, food will have power over us. Food freedom “eliminates all diets, rules, or morality with food, allowing food to be a part of your life without controlling it,” says Casey Bonano, a licensed dietitian and certified eating disorder registered dietitian.

Food freedom seeks to detach the act of eating from the assumption that we should all be losing weight. This idea is pervasive and widely internalized — including by the medical community — and can often lead to patterns of disordered eating. “Food freedom is important because we have a culture full of women ... that have been sold the lie that making themselves smaller will make them more worthy or healthier,” says Kirsten Ackerman, a registered dietitian.

For many people who spend hours of their lives counting calories, fixating on their next meal and berating themselves for eating a certain food they have coded as “bad,” food freedom can be nothing less than life-changing. “Food freedom is about the life you gain when you heal your relationship to food and body,” Ackerman says. “This journey allows people to develop a more neutral and comfortable relationship to food so that they can show up more fully in their lives.”

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Are food freedom and intuitive eating the same thing?

The term “intuitive eating” has been used liberally in recent years, but it has often been misappropriated. “Intuitive Eating has ironically been co-opted by diet culture and has been interpreted in certain settings as being a weight-loss method or a method for eating less,” Ackerman says.

In reality, Intuitive Eating is a specific, 10-step program designed by two dietitians, Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch, to help people reconnect with their mind and body through eating and rejecting the precepts of diet culture. Practicing Intuitive Eating should lead to food freedom, but whenever “intuitive eating” becomes a tool for weight loss, this is no longer food freedom, Ackerman says.

While there are many similarities between both approaches, says Whitney Catalano, RDN, a food freedom dietitian, she finds that her methodology focuses more on the “mental and emotional components of healing your relationship with food than the 10 steps of Intuitive Eating does.”

At the end of the day though, Catalano says that deciding to work with an Intuitive Eating dietitian or a food freedom dietitian comes down to preference and finding someone you trust.

Is food freedom right for everyone?

Pretty much, but it does depend on what each person’s existing relationship to food looks like. “Education about food freedom would be helpful to most everyone in our culture because, at baseline, our culture has a disordered relationship to food,” Ackerman says. “However, the people that are in most desperate need of food freedom are those who would say they spend a significant portion of their day thinking about food and body image.”

For most people who struggle with disordered eating or diagnosable eating disorders, food freedom is the way to heal. “Restriction is never the cure to a disordered relationship with food because it is what caused the disordered relationship with food in the first place,” Catalano says. “If you think you have a bad relationship with food, it’s important to seek help immediately from someone who specializes in food freedom, Intuitive Eating, or eating disorder recovery.”

What if you restrict certain foods for religious, moral or medical reasons? Can you still practice food freedom? Short answer: yes. “I would define food freedom as eating in alignment with your values without stress, anxiety, guilt, or shame,” Catalano says. “You can have food freedom and still, for example, eat vegetarian ... or reduce certain foods for medical purposes.”

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How do I practice food freedom?

Food freedom would ideally come naturally, but since many of us have lost touch with our intuition when it comes to our food and bodies, there are some simple guidelines that can help you find that healthier connection.

Give yourself unconditional permission to eat all foods.

For people who are used to imposing rigid rules on themselves around eating, this essential aspect of food freedom can be one of the most difficult hurdles to overcome. “Oftentimes, people will start practicing unconditional permission and get spooked because it’s common to feel like you’re overeating or binge eating at the beginning,” Catalano says. “As you learn to trust your body and allow it to tell you what it needs, you can then start reconnecting to your hunger and fullness signals, which often become muted with long-term dieting.”

It’s important to understand that no food is off-limits (except of course if you restrict certain foods for moral or medical rather than weight loss-related reasons). “Accept cravings and indulge them instead of creating a ‘healthier option,’” says Whitney Stuart, a board-certified dietitian-nutritionist and certified diabetic educator. “Your body does know the difference and this practice eventually backfires.”

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Engage with food in a way that’s not all-consuming.

When we engage in patterns of disordered eating, when we try to restrict certain foods, or when we simply don’t eat enough, food can become all-consuming. Taylor Gage is a health and mindset coach who has used food freedom as a way to transition out of diets like paleo and macro tracking. To her, food freedom is about “creating the space in your mind and self to be able to explore and enjoy the fullness of your life, instead of feeling captive to concerns, rules, and obsessive or anxious thought loops surrounding what to eat.”

Create a neutral relationship with your body.

The process of creating a neutral relationship to your body works from the inside out. It starts with learning to trust your body’s signals for hunger and fullness, without the diet mentality intercepting those cues. “Food freedom is a long process of trial, error, and learning to trust your body, but it’s through this journey that you’ll become an expert in your own body and learn so much more about yourself than you would with dieting,” Catalano says.

Secondly, when weight loss isn’t the determining factor for how you eat, your body might change or look different from other people’s — that’s a good thing. We all have different genes and metabolisms and we are not meant to all work ourselves into the same shape and size. Not only is that pursuit unsustainable, but it’s also likely to cause us harm. “Embrace natural body diversity and begin a journey to finding a neutral relationship to the appearance of your body,” Ackerman says.

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How do I speak to my friends and family about food freedom?

There’s no one-size-fits-all for that conversation. Ultimately, it has to be about prioritizing your comfort — whether that means discussing your food freedom journey openly, or keeping it more private. Here are some ways to approach it:

Set boundaries.

If you feel ready to discuss food freedom with friends and family, some triggering topics might still arise. “In time, you may find it necessary on your own healing journey to set boundaries around conversation topics with friends and family,” Ackerman says. “Setting boundaries can be as simple as saying, ‘Can we avoid talking about dieting or weight loss? I’m working on healing my relationship to food and my body and these topics are triggering for me.’”

If your friends and family ask you about food freedom, you can point them to resources to help them understand, such as food freedom accounts on Instagram and Twitter. IRL, you could help them unpack behaviors that stem from diet culture as they arise.

“My parents are Boomers, so they are still stuck in the habit of labeling foods as ‘good’ or ‘bad,’ so I've been doing a lot of work with them to try and unlearn those behaviors,” says Sarah Madaus, who has used food freedom as a way to recover from her eating disorder. “Every time I go home and hear them say that, I correct them and say, ‘Food is not good, nor is it bad. It all serves as fuel.’ They laugh it off, but the more I persist, the less they say it.”

Leave the conversation.

You are allowed to prioritize your comfort whenever the conversation turns to eating. “And, at the end of the day, your business is only your plate and the food you consume. Take the talk away from the plate,” Stuart says.

“You can always leave conversations you don’t want to be part of or try to change the subject away from weight loss,” Catalano says. “Remember that there are so many other more important things we could be talking about than dieting.”

Find a safe outlet to discuss your experience.

If you find it too difficult to discuss food freedom with friends or family, but still feel the need to talk about it, there are so many outlets at your disposal. Erin Levine, who actively practices food freedom as part of her eating disorder recovery, openly discusses her struggles on her Instagram page, where she finds support and a safe space in a community of “fat women posting their exercises, eating food, wearing cute clothes.” Levine also speaks to her fiancé, dietitian, and therapist about her struggles. “But the rest of the world doesn’t ‘get it’ yet,” she says. “They see Lizzo and get Lizzo, but they don’t get food freedom as a whole because we are just so entrenched in diet culture and fatphobia.”

But wait, isn’t food freedom associated with Whole30? What’s that about?

When you google “food freedom,” the first results that pop up are usually connected to Whole30, a 30-day program in which you’re only meant to consume “real” foods. Melissa Hartwig, the founder of Whole30, wrote a book called Food Freedom Forever, and has made the concept a central part of the Whole30 approach. But Whole30 is pretty restrictive — and paints weight loss as a desirable outcome — so does food freedom really have a place within that framework?

For Stuart, who is a Whole30 Certified Coach, the program serves as a transition into a freer approach to eating. “I believe that the Whole30 reset can be a great way to systemically test the impact of foods on your body: for emotional, physiological, and a medically-related purpose,” she says. “Food freedom develops during the reintroduction process as one becomes more aware of their response to foods and the habits they created around it.”

Ackerman, however, rejects the notion that the two things can go hand in hand. “Whole30 is in direct contrast to the goal of food freedom,” she says. “Although the goal of Whole30 is to listen to your body’s feedback about particular foods, the path to getting there is extremely restrictive.” Catalano and Bonano agree: Whole30 is a diet, and as such has no place in the kind of food freedom that liberates you from rules and restrictions, and allows you to live life to the fullest.

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