Why is food freedom important?
Food freedom, also called intuitive eating, is a counter-movement to diet culture that encourages people to heal their relationship with food and their bodies. Think of food freedom as an anti-diet — no food is considered off-limits, and there's no such thing as a "wrong" way to eat. When practicing food freedom, you can eat any food, in any amount, at any time that makes you feel good mentally, physically, and emotionally.
While food freedom posts on social media often center around people eating food thought of as "unhealthy" — like milkshakes, doughnuts, and pizza — without guilt, food freedom is more about cultivating a healthy relationship with all types of food and weight than about limitless desserts.
Read on to learn what you need to know about food freedom.
Diet culture is everywhere in our society, even within medical offices, and many people feel like they're under constant pressure to count calories and lose weight. Almost half of all women in the U.S. are trying to lose weight at any given time.
Dieting rarely works for long-term weight loss. A 2020 meta-analysis published in the British Medical Journal found that any impact most popular diets had on weight loss and cardiovascular health largely disappeared within a year.
We know that chronic dieting can lead to mental health problems like eating disorders, depression, and low self-esteem, and significant fluctuations in weight may double your risk of cardiovascular events like a heart attack or stroke.
Society's obsession with food has become so extreme that the term " orthorexia" was coined in 1998 to describe an unhealthy obsession with "clean" eating. People with orthorexia can become distressed if there are no "clean" or "safe" foods available and may even develop malnutrition from their restricted food choices.
It's no wonder that many people feel fed up with the pressure to diet. Intuitive eating is associated with positive body image, higher self-esteem, and an overall sense of well-being. Health at every size (HAES), a related movement that focuses on encouraging activity, intuitive eating, and weight inclusivity, can improve physical, behavioral, and psychological health for adolescents and adults.
How does food freedom work?
Food freedom is mainly a mindset change and often overlaps with mindful eating — a movement that encourages people to pay attention to how food makes them feel physically, mentally, and emotionally without judgment.
There's some evidence that mindful eating encourages people to make healthy dietary changes like consuming more nutrient-dense, plant-based foods.
Some standard guidelines in food freedom include:
- Refraining from using judgment-loaded terms like "clean" or "junk" when talking about food
- Listening to your body's cues to determine what foods make you feel good
- Allowing yourself to eat any food without guilt — no foods are forbidden
- Tuning into your hunger cues, eating when hungry, and stopping when full
- Accepting that bodies come in all different shapes or sizes
- Honoring that food is more than just fuel — food can feed us culturally, socially, and emotionally
- Practicing healthy movement that you enjoy rather than using exercise as a punishment
Many people find that once they stop restricting foods, they no longer experience intense cravings for formerly "forbidden" foods like cake, ice cream, or potato chips regularly. People often naturally begin to self-moderate as they remove moral judgments from foods, learn to trust that it's OK for them to have these foods at any time, and learn how to recognize how different foods make their bodies feel. Many people following food freedom report feeling "freed" from toxic cycles of restriction, binging, and shame.
Most people view food freedom as an ongoing practice that is nonjudgemental. No one changes their mindset like the flip of a switch, and food freedom is a continuing effort to heal and nourish your relationship with food, movement, and your body. Food freedom is noncompetitive and individualized — there's no way to "fail" at practicing food freedom.
Does food freedom lead to weight gain?
Food freedom can lead to weight gain for some people. Still, a 2019 study showed that intuitive eating is connected to weight stability for both women and men.
Another study in 2021 reported that intuitive eating combined with a mindful yoga practice lowered internalized weight stigma in high-stress adults. You may be more likely to gain weight when transitioning to food freedom if you're underweight or have a strict, restrictive dieting history.
If you've struggled with dieting, negative body image, and guilt or shame about weight or food, food freedom could be a solution for you. As with any dietary change, talk to a HAES-informed healthcare provider about your food freedom journey.
Your doctor or nutritionist may be able to provide you with individualized resources to support you. Suppose you suspect you might have orthorexia or have a history of depression, anxiety, or extreme stress from dieting or body image. In that case, you may want to consult a therapist or counselor who specializes in eating disorders, self-esteem, or intuitive eating.
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British Medical Journal: "Comparison of dietary macronutrient patterns of 14 popular named dietary programmes for weight and cardiovascular risk factor reduction in adults: systematic review and network meta-analysis of randomised trials."
Current Opinion in Pediatrics: "Integrating Health at Every Size principles into adolescent care."
Eating and Weight Disorders: "Is mindful eating sustainable and healthy? A focus on nutritional intake, food consumption, and plant-based dietary patterns among lean and normal-weight female university students in Japan."
Eating Disorders: "Intuitive eating is connected to self-reported weight stability in community women and men."
Health Psychology and Behavioral Medicine: "Internalized weight stigma and intuitive eating among stressed adults during a mindful yoga intervention: associations with changes in mindfulness and self-compassion."
International Journal of Eating Disorders: "Intuitive eating and its psychological correlates: A meta-analysis."
Mercy Cedar Rapids: "Why Diets Don’t Work: "How to Avoid the Dieting Cycle & Eat for Your Health."
National Eating Disorders Association: "kNOw Dieting: Risks and Reasons to Stop," "Orthorexia."
The New England Journal of Medicine: "Body-Weight Fluctuations and Outcomes in Coronary Disease."
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