What Food Freedom Tastes Like

With the Fourth of July upon us, I’ve been reflecting on what Independence Day was like for me as a kid.

Naturally, the fireworks were the highlight of the holiday. However, I also have very fond memories of the food.

I recall kicking off the festivities with a pancake breakfast at our local pool. I happily gobbled up syrup-soaked flapjacks topped with strawberries, blueberries and whipped cream in honor of the occasion.

After hours of swimming and playing with my neighborhood friends, the day would end with a big block party. What a thrill it was to be able to ride my banana-seat bike down the middle of our street!

Picnic tables were hauled from backyards and covered with an array of homemade summer dishes, while a couple of grills smoked away on the sidelines.

Food-Fueled Fun
My nighttime fun was fueled by ketchup-covered hot dogs, honey baked beans, buttery corn-on-the-cob, crisp watermelon wedges, salty chips and dip, and very patriotic Jell-O salads. All of this was washed down with thirst-quenching cups of lemonade.

No matter what I ate, I always had room for a fudgy brownie or strawberry shortcake topped with rapidly melting vanilla ice cream.

I ate what looked good, sounded good and felt good in my body. Sometimes I ate it all, and sometimes I left some behind.

I ate freely and intuitively.

Not Yet Tainted
My young mind hadn’t been tainted yet by diet culture—an oppressive system full of food rules, eating restrictions, good/bad food lists, careful counting (e.g., calories, points, macros, etc.), weight stigma and false promises.

I hadn’t been taught yet that I should be hyper-vigilant with food and micro-manage every morsel.

No one had told me yet that my body couldn’t be trusted and that I needed to rely on a plan or program to tell me how to eat.

I hadn’t learned to abhor my belly, demonize certain foods, feel ashamed about my eating and compensate for my food “sins.”

I didn't worry about others judging my choices nor did I play Hide & Eat to keep myself safe from scrutiny.

Do I Want It?
While I loved all that food, I had more exciting and important things to focus on, like water-balloon tosses, sparklers and bottle rockets.

As an Intuitive Eater, I just ate and moved on.

Eating was simply a matter of: I can have it. Do I want it?

Diet Mentality Takes Over
Unfortunately, all of this changed as I entered my teenage years and began adopting the diet mentality powered by salads, rice cakes and diet sodas (hello, Tab!).

My desire to achieve the “thin ideal” led to decades of disordered eating.

Thankfully, with help from some very wise guides, I eventually broke free from diet culture and made peace with food and my body.

The healing process wasn’t easy or fast. Some days, I feel like I'm still a work-in-progress. But, it’s all been worth it.

Ending the war I was waging against myself enabled me to return to the food freedom and body liberation I experienced as a young girl.   

It’s Still Within You
I’m sharing this story as a reminder that we all came into this world as Intuitive Eaters—that is, we ate based on our instincts, inner cues and desires. We ate without worry, guilt, fear or shame.  

Sadly, we’re losing touch with our ability to eat intuitively at a younger and younger age. Shockingly, an estimated 80 percent of 10-year-old girls have been on a diet.

I’m also sharing my experience to assure you that if you’ve become disconnected from the Intuitive Eater within you, you can reconnect with it.

It hasn’t gone away. It’s just buried under layers of diet-culture gunk, which today, is often packaged under the guise of “wellness.”

Magical Powers Not Required
I don’t have any magical powers. My clients don’t either. If we can relearn how to listen to and trust our bodies, so can you.

“I’m no longer searching for the ‘answer’ to the perfect way to eat. I don’t stress about how I eat because it isn’t that big of a deal anymore. I no longer believe those food guilt thoughts and that is F-R-E-E-D-O-M!”
–Client Molly

Will You Join Us in Banning the G-Word?

If you’ve been with me for a while, you know how strongly I feel that guilt has no place in our relationship with food.

For this reason, I am absolutely thrilled that the San Francisco Chronicle’s new restaurant reviewer, Soleil Ho, has promised to never use the G-Word in her reviews.

Here’s what she had to say in a recent article

“Guilt: I don’t use this word because of the harm it does to our relationship to food, especially because ‘guilt’ in this context never actually refers to things that do carry ethical weight, like cannibalism or stealing food from the hungry.

Why should anyone besides the Hamburglar, who seems to enjoy the act of larceny for the sheer thrill of it, feel guilty about their food choices?

The overwhelmingly majority of the time I’ve encountered this word in food writing or a marketing context has been about diet food, mainly directed toward girls and women: ‘guilt-free snacks,’ ‘ice cream without the guilt,’ and so on.

Criminalizing the everyday act of eating reinforces the idea that we need to punish ourselves for wanting food when we’re hungry, which encourages us to develop really screwed-up and disordered attitudes toward our own bodies.

Relatedly, I hate every time Great British Bake-off judge Prue Leith says that a pastry is good if it’s ‘worth the calories.’”

I did an extra cheer when I read Ho’s last sentence because I also cringe mightily whenever I hear Leith (or anyone else) make a comment like this.

Let’s Do This Together
My hope is that more people—from restaurant reviewers and food writers to chefs and copywriters—follow Ho’s lead and ban the word guilt when it comes to food.

You, too, can help drive this change. Notice when you find yourself saying things like:

  • I feel so guilty for eating all those cookies.

  • My guilty pleasure is a bacon double cheeseburger.

  • I seriously overdid it at dinner; I need to burn off all those calories tomorrow!

  • This chocolate fudge cake is sinfully good.

  • I was so bad today; I ate way too many chips.

When you do catch yourself referring to guilt or morality when talking about your food choices (or someone else’s), turn it into an opportunity to practice a new way of speaking to yourself and others about food—one that is unconditional, empowering and liberating rather than criminalizing, punitive and oppressive. 

I Just Want to Eat Like a Normal Person

A comment I often hear is:

“I just want to eat like a normal person.”

To better understand where someone is coming from, I always ask:

“What does normal eating mean to you?”

Of course, everyone responds differently depending upon the impact our diet culture and confusing food environment has had on a person's relationship with food.

However, almost all the answers are packed full of “shoulds” and “should nots,” such as:

  • I shouldn't eat so much.

  • I shouldn't think about food all the time.

  • I should eat fewer carbs.

  • I shouldn’t grab the chip bag when I’m stressed.

  • I should be able to control my sweet tooth.

  • I should eat more vegetables.

  • I should eat only whole foods; no processed foods.

  • I shouldn’t snack at night.  

  • I should avoid anything with added sugars.

  • I shouldn’t have seconds.

  • I should never keep chocolate or ice cream in my house.

  • I shouldn't be an emotional eater.

  • I should only eat dessert once a week.

  • I shouldn’t eat so much cheese and bread.

Normal to Not Eat Normally
Sadly, it’s pretty normal these days to not know what it means to eat normallyor how to do it.

The definition of normal (or healthy) eating for many people has come to include a lot of restrictions. The result: a disconnection from your body, a fraught relationship with food, and feelings of guilt and shame when you break the rules.

When my clients ask me what normal eating looks like, I often refer to Ellyn Satter, a well-known expert on feeding dynamics and eating competence. She created the following definition 35 years ago. Despite how much our food landscape and diet culture constantly changes, her words remain true.

Normal Eating is...
Normal eating is going to the table hungry and eating until you are satisfied.

It is being able to choose food you enjoy and eat it and truly get enough of it—not just stop eating because you think you should.

Normal eating is being able to give some thought to your food selection so you get nutritious food, but not being so wary and restrictive that you miss out on enjoyable food.

Normal eating is giving yourself permission to eat sometimes because you are happy, sad or bored, or just because it feels good.

Normal eating is mostly three meals a day, or four or five, or it can be choosing to munch along the way.

It is leaving some cookies on the plate because you know you can have some again tomorrow, or it is eating more now because they taste so wonderful.

Normal eating is overeating at times, feeling stuffed and uncomfortable. And it can be undereating at times and wishing you had more.

Normal eating is trusting your body to make up for your mistakes in eating.

Normal eating takes up some of your time and attention, but keeps its place as only one important area of your life.

In short, normal eating is flexible. It varies in response to your hunger, your schedule, your proximity to food and your feelings.

Truly Liberating
I love how Satter's interpretation of normal eating removes all the judgement, moralism, rigidity, rules, deprivation, willpower and perfectionism that are so common in our relationship with food these days.

Instead, her definition supports a way of eating that is intuitive, pleasurable, sustainable, nourishing and truly liberating.

You can access a PDF of Satter's definition to post on your fridge here. She also offers many helpful resources on her website

“Normal Eating is…” Copyright (c) 2018 by Ellyn Satter. Published at www.EllynSatterInstitute.org.