Food Freedom: What It Is and Why It Matters

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It's safe to say there will always be a new fad diet on the wellness market. It's equally safe to say that while promising to solve all your health issues in the span of one quick and easy purchase or hack, these diets will most likely not be a long-term solution to your health goals. One review found that, on average, dieters regain more than half of the weight they shed within two years. But it's not just weight fluctuation that comes as the result of a fad diet—other lifestyle factors and habits may have a lasting impact, too.

While there are undoubtedly expert-approved eating plans that help people reach (and maintain) their weight and health goals in a safe, sustainable manner, the National Eating Disorder Association (NEDA) reports that dieters are five times more likely to develop an eating disorder. As for those on a diet with extreme calorie restriction? Their risk of developing an eating disorder increases dramatically. 

That’s why many nutrition and psychology pros alike are fighting back against the culture of dietary restriction and restraint, promoting the idea of “food freedom."

What Is Food Freedom?

Food freedom isn’t a dietary plan. Rather, it’s the attitude behind feeding your body intuitively without feeling like your choices are driven by the “shoulds” we often internalize from diet culture, says Monique Bellefleur, Ed. M, LMHC, a mental health counselor who specializes in eating disorders and chronic dieting.

“An example of this would be allowing yourself—and really knowing—that it is okay to have a slice of pepperoni pizza (or two or three, based on your hunger level) for lunch today because you aren’t judging your self-worth off what or how much you ate,” Bellefleur explains. “If you are in a place of food freedom, you are not self-critical for this choice and understand you can trust your body to guide your food choices.”

That said, food freedom is not eating with complete disregard for nutritious foods, adds Caitlyn Friedrichsen, MPPD, RD, LMNT at the Children’s Hospital & Medical Center in Omaha. It simply allows for flexibility, variety, and indulgence, while “honoring hunger, fullness, and cravings, and letting go of foods being ‘off limits.’” 

Why Food Freedom Matters

A recent Harris Poll found that two-thirds of Americans planned to diet recently-gained weight away in 2022 by restricting calories and cutting out specific foods. Experts point out a few concerning realities behind this upswing in dieting.

“Diet culture has an agenda: creating ‘problems’ with our bodies which can then be ‘fixed’,” Friedrichsen says, whether that’s with the latest fad diet or weight-loss supplement. “[But] research tells us that over 95 percent of diets fail.” Because dieting can be so all-consuming—given the planning, calorie-counting, and self-control it requires—when our diet fails, it’s a direct hit at our self-esteem. 

At best, this guilt over dietary “failure” negatively impacts how someone feels about themselves. “But it can also lead them to engage in unhealthy behaviors such as restricting, purging, or over-exercising to relieve the guilt,” Bellefleur adds. “These behaviors are disordered and can lead to very real, severe eating disorders.” 

Food freedom offers an alternative to dieting and all the baggage that comes with it, Friedrichsen notes. “And ultimately, having flexibility around eating allows us more freedom in other areas of our lives.” 

Plus, adhering to a food freedom mindset means you literally can’t fail. “When food isn’t at the forefront of your mind, eating something out of the ordinary doesn’t carry the same power to make you feel so guilty,” states Kathryn Coniglio, MS, a doctoral candidate in clinical psychology at the University of Pennsylvania. “True freedom to eat what you want when you want technically means you can’t ever ‘slip up’.” 

Food Freedom and Weight Management

Dieting can take a serious toll on individuals' physical health. Research from the journal Nutrients shows how common fad diets often lead to nutrient deficiencies, which can open the door to a wide range of nasty health impacts. Diets can also make weight management difficult to maintain.

“Restrictive dieting can cause metabolism to slow down,” Friedrichsen explains. In fact, a study published in the journal Obesity followed up with contestants from The Biggest Loser six years after extreme crash dieting, finding that their impaired metabolisms never fully recovered.

While food freedom is not specifically a weight management tool, that doesn’t mean that the two can’t coexist. “There is some emerging evidence that intuitive eating is helpful for weight maintenance,” Coniglio says.

A study published in Eating Disorders found a strong connection between intuitive eating and self-reported weight stability—as well as general body acceptance and a lower desire for weight change.

Additionally, Coniglio points to a 2020 study that looked at adolescents over a multiple-year period. The researchers found that those engaging in a food freedom mindset had a lower likelihood of disordered eating behaviors, body dissatisfaction, depressive symptoms, and low self-esteem. But ultimately, she emphasizes that current studies are observational in nature, so more research is needed. 

How to Achieve Food Freedom

“In case you’re worried you won’t be able to do it 'right,' know that food freedom is different for everyone because we all have unique food experiences,” encourages Friedrichsen. “Take comfort in knowing that we do not need to love our weight, shape, or appearance to find food freedom.”

Evaluate Your Relationship With Food

Coniglio describes a good first step as taking stock of restraints you currently adhere to and considering where those come from. “There could be food rules that you are following but may not even realize it,” she says. “When you go to the grocery store, are there foods or maybe even entire aisles you habitually avoid?” Let yourself experiment with incorporating more variety into your diet, and know it’s okay to start small.

Understand That All Foods Fit

This means that there is a place for all types of food in our life, Bellefleur explains. “Of course, incorporating nutrient-dense foods into our diet is important, but being able to enjoy birthday cake with friends and family is also important.” Allowing this mindset to take root starts with giving yourself unconditional permission to eat while re-learning your body’s hunger, fullness, and craving cues, as these can get suppressed with long-term dieting. 

Disconnect Your Self-Worth From Food Choices

A lot of mental energy goes into dieting. “When you give your brain permission to think about other things instead of food and weight, you expand the measures you use to evaluate your self-worth,” Coniglio notes.

Practice naming positive qualities about yourself that don’t have to do with weight or appearance—to take this one step further, clean up your social media. “If you feel an account causes you to feel badly about your body or food, unfollow it,” invites Friedrichsen. “For each unfollow, add one body-positive or food freedom-related account.”

Build a Support System

“Surround yourself with others who share similar views,” encourages Friedrichsen. “Food is meant to be enjoyed!” Many studies have found that social support helps people reach physical activity and exercise goals—and the same concept holds true for achieving dietary change. A 2021 study published in Public Health Nutrition shows that a supportive social circle improves someone's progress toward healthy eating goals.

Have Patience With Yourself

We live in a society that embraces diet culture and the thin ideal, which makes it hard to be happy with our appearance. “This can leave us feeling like we’ve failed or that if we “just tried harder” our body and body image would transform,” says Friedrichsen. It can also be difficult to shift out of this cultural mindset.

Attaining food freedom is a long-term goal, and it’s okay to move slowly and to bring in reinforcements. If you’re struggling, “reach out to a therapist or registered dietician specializing in intuitive eating and disordered eating recovery to support you in your journey,” Bellefleur notes.

A Word From Verywell

Consult with a healthcare professional before making any changes to your diet, particularly if you have underlying health conditions. This is especially important for people in recovery from an eating disorder. The experts say in these cases, food freedom is a great goal to work towards, but any dietary shift during treatment should be overseen by a doctor.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • What is food morality?

    Food morality means categorizing foods as “good” or “bad,” a practice that can trigger emotional responses based on what we’re eating. We may do this intentionally or unintentionally in our daily lives. In contrast, food neutrality removes this moral value—adopting a neutral view of foods is an important part of attaining food freedom.

  • What is the social value of food?

    The social value of food refers to the role food plays in our daily lives. Food can have a positive social value, such as sharing meals as a bonding experience or aligning with cultural habits. Food’s social value can also present negatively in a person, like if you eat alone due to feelings like shame or guilt.

  • What influences our eating habits?

    Everyone’s eating habits and relationship to food are entirely unique, as it’s shaped by a wide range of factors like your culture, childhood eating habits, social environment, mental health, activity levels, and physical nutrition needs.

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Verywell Fit uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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Edited by
Lily Moe
Lily Moe for Verywell Fit

Lily Moe is a former fitness coach and current Editor for Verywell Fit. As a wellness enthusiast, she can often be found in a hot yoga studio, trying a new recipe, or going for a long run in Central Park.

Learn about our editorial process