Letting go of diet rules and restrictions may sound scary, but here's how food freedom can actually improve your health. And we promise, you won't just eat cake and pizza.

Heather Caplan, R.D.
April 21, 2020
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If someone suggested you could eat any food you want, anytime, what comes to mind? Without any limits, what would your meals look like? Your first thought might be, "That sounds so unhealthy!" You may imagine plates full of cheesy pasta, bacon, cookies and ice cream. But hear me out—by learning how to eat more intuitively, that kind of food freedom will likely lead to more variety with your diet, less stress and better health outcomes. Read on to find out more about this "new" way of eating.

What exactly is food freedom?

Maybe you've heard about people who eat whatever they want, and you wonder how they can do that? Maybe you've heard of intuitive eating or getting rid of diets (and if you haven't heard of it, take a look at the 10 principles of intuitive eating). For some people, the idea of food freedom is a little terrifying. You might think: If I can really eat whatever I want, every day, won't I eat "junk" food constantly? Won't I only want to eat things like pizza, fries, burritos and cupcakes?

The answers to those questions are: Maybe, at first. And that's OK. But you won't want to eat those fun foods for every meal, every day, forever.

The concepts of food freedom and eating intuitively may feel new, but they bring us back to our innate human instincts. We crave variety, we have personal food preferences, and we have regulatory systems (e.g., hormones) that help us identify hunger, fullness and satisfaction (learn more about how hormones play a role in your diet and what you can eat to keep them healthy). We don't need to purposefully restrict our food intake, count or track every bite, or impose rules on what we can and can't eat every day in order to stay healthy.

Yes, we can even get bored with pizza.

Imagine eating pizza for breakfast, lunch and dinner for seven days in a row. By the third or fourth day, you probably wouldn't want to look at another slice. Anything might sound good—except for pizza.

But if you never have pizza, or only allow yourself one slice a week, you're placing restrictions on your diet, and your body learns to crave pizza more. Many adults place these types of dietary limits on themselves—often with good intentions, and often because we think we must "moderate" our intake of certain foods, for our health.

And while eating one type of food all day every day would impact our overall health, remember that's true for both cupcakes and broccoli. Without a variety of food, we lack a variety of nutrients, and we aren't satisfied.

Food freedom often provokes a fear of losing control. Why doesn't it feel liberating, instead?

"Many people are used to relying on calorie trackers, macro counters or a points system in order to keep a tab on what they are eating throughout the day," says Shana Spence, RD, owner of The Nutrition Tea, based in New York City. To suddenly be left to our own devices is a shift from the norm, and change rarely comes easily. And it's not just countercultural; it challenges what we've internalized about health and about what's actually within our control (versus what isn't).

Because we've been told and taught to restrict certain types of foods—often really yummy foods, often foods we really like—those foods often become "special," celebratory and more highly desired (hence, why we tend to crave cake and not salad).

Let's try putting rigid, restrictive and controlling behaviors aside. What do we eat, then?

"When people start eating intuitively, the foods they will feel most drawn toward are those that have been restricted. This response is expected, because it's how your brain responds to a famine," notes Kimmie Singh, M.S., RD, a practitioner at the NYC-based private practice LK Nutrition. In other words, we expect you to want the cupcakes, pizza, fries, burritos or whatever your palate unapologetically loves and craves.

And it's OK to eat them in "excess," or what may feel that way. That is a natural response to restriction, and it won't last forever. So your worries about eating nothing but ice cream may become a reality, but only in the very short term.

Eventually, through consistency and with compassion, we can normalize all foods.

Food freedom, within the context of intuitive eating or a nondiet approach to nutrition counseling, happens in part because of something known as habituation. Habituation is essentially food exposure therapy: the more you eat something, the less you will want it. Remember the week of never-ending pizza? I doubt you would swear off pizza for life, but you would need a little break!

Worried you might never eat a vegetable or piece of fruit again? That's also a normal concern.

"Vegetables, especially, are not typically considered appetizing. They are seen as that necessary evil—the thing we 'have' to eat in order to be healthy," adds Spence. Maybe you love fruits and vegetables, and eat them regularly without issue. But, they're not as celebrated, or as "special." In any case, if we put all foods on a level playing field—the cake is just as available to you as the broccoli, you can have it as often, if you so desire—things eventually normalize. Or, as Singh put it: "The 'fun' foods lose some of their appeal, because they're always an option. And people learn to self-regulate their intake of all foods in a way that feels both satisfying and nourishing."

Still feeling concerned about how your health will be impacted by this newfound food freedom?

"Many people are stuck on this idea that each bite of food either brings us closer to or further from good health. Health is simply more complicated than that," says Singh. Nutrition is important, of course, but it's not the be-all and end-all of our health. Research shows food rules and rigid diets may even cause stress, negating some of those perceived benefits of restricting certain foods or food groups.

Studies have even found that intuitive eating behaviors, such as enjoying food freedom and eating a variety of food types and groups, are related to improved, or more stable, measures of both mental and physical health, including weight stability and glycemic control. (Learn more about intuitive eating and diabetes.)

Start with one food you love.

There is no right or wrong time, or food, to start practicing food freedom with. Think about something you love, but rarely allow yourself to enjoy. Or, when you do, you call it a "guilty pleasure" or "indulgence." Try reframing it as just a snack, or dessert or part of your normal meals. "I find that after people have exposure to the formerly restricted foods, then they naturally become more eager to have a more varied diet," says Singh. I've seen the same, in my practice. We're not trying to make any of your favorite foods less exciting! We're just suggesting you try enjoying them more often, with food freedom and no guilt.