Written by Amber Charles Alexis, MSPH, RDN on January 12, 2022 — Medically reviewed by Kim Rose RDN, CDCES, CNSC, LD, Nutrition
“Food freedom” — it’s a complex term, with definitions ranging from ditching diet culture and restrictive diets to attaining good health and food security through growing your own foods.
It’s marketed as an approach to address eating disorders for some and as a way to promote intentional weight loss for others.
However, in the health and wellness space, it’s an emerging, revolutionary concept that challenges societal norms of dieting and the thin ideal.
It is championed by passionate health professionals and game-changers, such as Shana Spence (@thenutritiontea). Spence is a registered dietitian who takes a non-diet, weight-inclusive approach to health.
She uses her platform to redefine what “health” means — distinct from the diet industry’s often-unattainable standards.
Another powerful and passionate food freedom champion is Dr. Kera Nyemb-Diop (@black.nutritionist), who has created a space that emphasizes body respect, eating without guilt, and reclaiming your cultural food heritage as an integral part of your healthy lifestyle.
In this article, we explore food freedom, explain what intuitive eating and mindful eating are, and discuss what roles — if any — they may have in the pursuit of intentional weight loss.
What is food freedom?
The food freedom framework has various definitions and applications, including but not limited to (1Trusted Source, 2Trusted Source):
- freedom from industrial food production
- an approach to strengthen food sovereignty
- gastronomy — the science of understanding historical cultural foods and their impact on human health
- a spiritual journey to overcome “food addiction”
- a liberating part of weight loss programs such as Whole30
In other contexts, food freedom refers to ditching dieting culture and restrictive diets by giving yourself permission to enjoy all foods in moderation (unless allergies or medical needs prevent you from eating certain foods).
In that application of food freedom, practitioners see food as more than just fuel. They seek to build a positive and judgment-free relationship with all foods, where guilt is not considered an ingredient in the eating experience.
This view of food freedom encompasses intuitive eating and mindful eating, two philosophies that cultivate self-trust around food choices and reject unnecessary restrictions.
Intuitive eating and mindful eating are often used to support recovery from eating disorders such as anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa, chronic mental illnesses that negatively affect nutritional status and your relationship with food (3Trusted Source, 4Trusted Source, 5Trusted Source).
Overall, food freedom can help people overcome diet culture or introduce flexibility for intentional weight loss.
Because the varied and overlapping marketing of the term “food freedom” may lead to some confusion, context matters. This article will focus on food freedom as a non-diet approach to health and nutrition.
Disordered eating and eating disorders can affect anyone, regardless of gender identity, race, age, socioeconomic status, or other identities.
They can be caused by any combination of biological, social, cultural, and environmental factors — not just by exposure to diet culture.
If you feel like you may be overly concerned with your weight or preoccupied with food, or if you get overwhelmed when you think about maintaining a healthful, guilt-free eating pattern, feel empowered to talk with a qualified healthcare professional.
A registered dietitian or therapist can help you work through feelings of guilt or anxiety and build eating patterns that support your health, both physical and mental.
You can also chat, call, or text anonymously with trained volunteers at the National Eating Disorders Association helpline for free, or explore the organization’s free and low cost resources.
The term “food freedom” has various definitions, including ditching diet culture and cultivating self-trust around food choices. The food freedom approach has been used to support both eating disorder recovery and some intentional weight loss programs.
The origins of food freedom as a concept
Food freedom as a therapeutic approach for eating disorder recovery grew out of the need for non-pharmaceutical treatments that emphasize behavioral changes, such as a positive body image and healthy eating attitudes (3Trusted Source, 6Trusted Source).
A 2017 study demonstrated that dieting — accompanied by body dissatisfaction and the pursuit of thinness — increases the risk of developing bulimia nervosa, binge eating disorder, and purging disorder (7Trusted Source).
Even dieting among inherently lean individuals increases their risk of developing anorexia nervosa (7Trusted Source).
The multibillion-dollar diet industry promotes the “thin ideal” with unhealthy weight management behaviors, potentially encouraging disordered eating patterns that can contribute to the development of eating disorders (7Trusted Source, 8Trusted Source).
There’s evidence that dieting doesn’t help those who are seeking long-term weight loss, either.
Weight regain within 1–5 years is common among chronic dieters, and approximately 33% of dieters regain more weight than they initially lost (8Trusted Source).
Dieting restrictions contribute to disordered eating. Food freedom, on the other hand, seeks to combat this (5Trusted Source).
Food freedom as a mindfulness-based practice may address disordered eating, including emotional eating and binge eating disorder. It can also help you avoid eating in response to external cues, such as the sight or smell of foods, when you’re not physically hungry (6Trusted Source, 9Trusted Source).
In particular, intuitive eating is associated with improved psychological well-being and physical health and fewer dietary restrictions (5Trusted Source, 10Trusted Source).
Food freedom arose from the need for behavior-change approaches emphasizing positive body image and healthy eating attitudes instead of dieting restrictions. It can support folks in recovery from disordered eating or clinical eating disorders.
Food freedom, intuitive eating, and mindful eating: What’s the difference?
Although these three terms are often used interchangeably, you may wonder whether they are essentially the same. There are minor distinctions among their presiding principles.
For instance, mindful eating is rooted in the Buddhist practice of mindfulness and living with awareness and intention (11Trusted Source, 12Trusted Source).
It’s a meditative practice that is built on the mind-body connection and fosters a state of nonjudgmental awareness that engages your senses — sight, smell, taste, and feel — during a meal (11Trusted Source, 12Trusted Source).
Mindful eating is the art of being present while you eat.
Similarly, intuitive eating nurtures a mind-body connection, but it’s distinctively rooted in a weight-inclusive approach to health and serves as the core of the Health at Every Size paradigm (10Trusted Source).
Intuitive eating is guided by 10 principles, including respecting your body, rejecting diet culture, making peace with food, and honoring health through gentle nutrition.
Food freedom, however, isn’t so well defined. It may represent true forms of intuitive eating or mindful eating, or it may attempt to bridge gaps between intentional weight loss, caloric restriction, and increased flexibility with food.
Despite these differences, there is a common thread among the three terms: They all seek to reduce unnecessary dietary restrictions and improve your relationship with food.
They aim to remove prospects of guilt, shame, and negative emotions associated with consuming “forbidden” or “bad” foods.
The terms “food freedom,” “intuitive eating,” and “mindful eating” may be used interchangeably, but there are differences among these practices. However, they all seek to reduce dieting restrictions and increase flexibility.
Tips to pursue food freedom
Food freedom, when used as a non-diet approach to health, seeks to liberate you from the thin ideal and diet culture, unsafe weight loss or weight management behaviors, and yo-yo dieting.
Whether you choose to adopt a meditative approach with mindful eating or work through the 10 principles of intuitive eating, freedom from restriction and judgment is possible.
Here are some tips:
- Work with a registered dietitian who is certified in intuitive eating or who implements mindful eating techniques to guide you.
- Work on unlearning the idea that foods are either “good” or “bad.” Instead, focus on the purpose that food serves at a given moment (such as pleasure, energy, or nourishment).
- Similarly, remove the idea of morality from foods. Understand that you’re not a bad person for eating a pleasurable food and that food choices should not make you feel inferior or superior to others.
- Give yourself permission to enjoy pleasurable foods regularly. This way, you won’t feel out of control around certain foods.
- Focus on health-promoting habits such as staying hydrated and engaging in fun physical activity. Health is more than just the number on the scale.
- Tune in to your internal cues, such as emotions and feelings of fullness and hunger, rather than simply the external cues of eating (such as eating because it’s a specific time of day or because you feel you must finish all the food on your plate).
- Eat slowly, without distractions, and savor your food.
- Focus on how a food makes you feel, and choose more foods that make you feel good.
Food freedom as a non-diet approach to nutrition includes tuning in to your internal cues of fullness and hunger, removing morality from foods, and focusing on health-promoting behaviors rather than the scale.
Using intuitive eating for intentional weight loss
Intentional weight loss is the active attempt to change your body weight, with the goal of lowering the number on the scale.
Although studies show that intuitive eating is associated with weight loss and a lower body mass index (BMI), at its core, intuitive eating is not a weight loss method (10Trusted Source).
A true intuitive eating program would not advertise weight loss as an outcome, since some people may lose weight while others may gain or maintain weight.
Intuitive eating allows your body to find its “happy weight,” or biologically determined set point weight.
Likewise, the fundamental principles of mindful eating are not focused on weight loss — though some weight loss programs have co-opted its messages of mindfulness (11Trusted Source).
Other programs work to bridge the gap by focusing on health-promoting habits while instituting small calorie deficits that promote slow-paced weight loss without completely avoiding pleasurable foods that might not be nutrient-dense or low in calories.
The principles of intuitive eating and mindful eating don’t focus on intentional weight loss, although weight loss, gain, or maintenance may occur when you adopt them. Instead, they focus on allowing your body to reach its “happy,” natural weight.
The bottom line
“Food freedom” is a highly marketed term with various definitions, ranging from overcoming diet culture and restrictive diets to engaging in food sovereignty. Therefore, context matters.
As a non-diet approach to nutrition, food freedom includes tuning in to your internal cues of fullness and hunger, decoupling foods and morality, and focusing on health-promoting behaviors — not just the scale.
At their core, intuitive eating and mindful eating principles don’t focus on or promote intentional weight loss. Rather, they help you discover and engage in health-promoting habits that may lead to weight loss, gain, or maintenance.
These frameworks help people foster positive relationships with foods and their bodies that are built on self-trust and self-compassion rather than on the thin ideal.
Just one thing
Try this today: At your next meal, try removing distractions, such as the TV or your phone. Chew your food thoroughly (at least 20 times) to engage your senses and connect with your internal fullness cues.