Fear-Free Eating is a feeling. It’s a feeling of freedom. It’s being at peace with food. It’s respecting your body. It’s honouring your hunger. It’s relating to food in a way that expands your life rather than restricts it. It’s that feeling you get when it’s freezing outside and you come home and cook up a batch of your favourite chilli. You serve it with rice and beautiful side salad and maybe some tortilla chips and a bit of guacamole and then you sit down with your family or your partner or on your own and you enjoy every bite until you are satisfied. You feel nourished. You feel healthy. You feel at peace with food and your body and your life.
So many of us have lost this feeling of peace and freedom. Instead, our life is dominated by thinking about food and feeling fat. So many of us have become disconnected from our appetite and have lost trust in our body. So, in order for you to reconnect with this feeling of freedom, I’ve explained Fear-Free Eating below in as many ways as I know how in the hope that you can relate to a few of them and begin to eat from a place of freedom instead of fear.
Ultimately, Fear-Free Eating is about using your relationship with food to transform your relationship with life. It’s about replacing your efforts to control your body with learning how to connect with it, care for it and be compassionate towards it. It’s about letting go of your preoccupation with food and weight and shape so you can get in touch with what really matters to you – your values, your purpose, what you want to get out of life and what you hope to contribute to the world.
And this is an active process. It’s not something you get by sitting back and waiting. It’s something you have to learn (or more like a lot of things you have to unlearn! Food rules, harmful eating habits, calorie counting, weight stigma…).
It’s something that takes inner work. It’s an ongoing practice of becoming more of who you are every day. So below is a summary of a few Fear-Free Eating tools to help you learn and unlearn.
The Fear-Free Eating Mentality
Here’s a couple of pictures to explore what’s going on inside the head of a fear-free eater in comparison to a fear-based eater.
Five Elements of Fear-Free Eating
It’s helpful to remember that nutrition is just one element of eating. Fear-free Eating involves eating in way that will enhance both your health and happiness. Of course this will involve eating plenty of nutritious wholefoods (because that is what your body thrives on) but it also means eating for purposes other than nutrition. Considering these five elements when making decisions about what to eat will help you make food choices that nourish you physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually:
- Intuition – What do you feel like eating? Are you meal hungry or snack hungry? Do you fancy something hot or cold? Sweet or savoury? Filling or light?
- Pleasure – What do you enjoy eating?
If you’ve been dieting for so long that you’ve forgotten what you enjoy eating, then reflect on what you used to eat as a child.
- Nutrition – What provides you with the nutrients your body needs?
Take a gentle approach to nutrition by simply ensuring you are eating enough without restricting any food groups (unless you have a diagnosed medical reason to do so).
- Tradition – What did your parents and grandparents eat? What cultural traditions do you have around food?
Traditional foods are the foods that have nourished our ancestors for years. They are important to helps us avoid getting sucked into food fads and unnecessarily restrictive diets.
- Connection – How does food help you connect to nature? To friends? To life?
Going to farmers markets, making cookies with your kids, sharing roast dinners with your family…
The 4 ‘P’s of Happy Eating
This is a really beautiful way to explore Fear-Free Eating because it is so simple. And in a world that is constantly bombarding us with more and more complex nutrition information and dietary advice, simplicity is a very beautiful thing indeed.
The 4 ‘P’s of Happy Eating are inspired by Dan Beuttner’s work in helping people to live healthier, happier, and more fulfilling lives. From his research, he identified pleasure, pride and purpose as the recipe for happiness. So, if we apply this specifically to cultivating a healthy relationship with food we can identify four things that contribute to happy eating:
- Pleasure – the enjoyment and satisfaction we get from eating
- Purpose – the way food provides us with energy and nutrients
- Pride – the sense of self-respect and satisfaction we get when we take responsibility for our health and nourish ourselves properly
- Practicality – the understanding that food is just one part of living a health and happy life and therefore our choices around food have to fit in with the wider context of our lives
This is an evidenced-based model created by Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch and I am lucky to have trained under them during my training as an Intuitive Eating Counselor.
They have created 10 principles of intuitive eating to help people nourish a healthy relationship with food which all support fear-free eating. These principles are:
- Reject the diet mentality
- Honour your hunger
- Make peace with food
- Challenge the food police
- Feel your fullness
- Discover the satisfaction factor
- Cope with feelings without using food
- Respect your body
- Exercise: Feel the difference
- Honour your health: Gentle nutrition
Intuitive eating is the opposite of dieting and it does take a little while to get your head around. I know many people who are baffled at the idea of letting go of control and simply eating in a way that makes you feel good (neither overeating or undereating make you feel good). There are no rules. There are no goals. Instead, intuitive eating is a process. We are all intuitive eaters from birth so it’s simply about relearning to listen to your own inner wisdom instead of listening to the noise of the diet, fitness and wellness industries.
The Recognition Technique
This is a neuroscientific way of approaching Fear-Free Eating. It treats thoughts, urges and feelings to diet or engage in disordered eating behaviour as habits housed in our lower brain. In order to find food freedom, we need break these habits by identifying any thoughts or urges encouraging dieting or disordered eating, acknowledge that these thoughts and urges are separate from our true desire for health and happiness, and choose not act on them using our higher brain (the more evolved part of our brain where our decision making processes are housed).
Originally this was called the Addictive Voice Recognition Technique (AVRT), developed by Jack Trimpney as part of his Rational Recovery model for addictions where the Addictive Voice (AV) is anything that encourages addictive behaviour.
As part of Fear-Free Eating, you can call this ‘voice’ whatever makes the recognition technique more personal and relatable to what you are going through. The ‘voice’ refers to any thought or urge encouraging you to engage in destructive dieting or disordered eating. Some people refer to this technique as the:
- Habitual Voice Recognition Technique
- Dieting Mentality Recognition Technique
- Anorexic Voice Recognition Technique
- Binge Urge Recognition Technique
- Eating Disorder Voice Recognition Technique
The underlying message here is that all those urges you get to binge or diet or starve yourself or abuse your body in anyway, and all those thoughts that tell you you’re worthless, or fat, or too damaged to love – they are part of you but they are not the REAL YOU. They are habit. They are diet mentality. They are anorexia or addiction. And if you can separate yourself from those thoughts and urges just for a moment, you will see that freedom from them is possible.
I explore this more here: How My Eating Disorder Became a Habit
The Inside-Out Paradigm
Most of the information we receive about food, eating, and nutrition comes from the outside world – nutritionists, scientists, magazines, bloggers, social media influencers… So we end up eating from an outside-in paradigm where we prioritise external information over the wisdom of our own body. By focussing so much on this outside noise, we lose touch with our inner voice, become disconnected from our body and lose trust in our appetite.
Fear-Free Eating works from an inside-out paradigm involving a two-step process:
- Step 1: Tune into your inner world
This means putting all beliefs about health and nutrition to one side and instead listening to, trusting, and responding to the messages your body is telling you e.g. honouring your hunger, eating foods that make you feel good, resting when you need to rest, integrating instinct, emotion and logic to make food choices that you know will nourish you.
- Step 2: Decide what information you want to incorporate from the outer world
Once you have connected with your inner world, you can then decide what elements of health guidance and nutrition information you want to incorporate from external sources. This involves being able to identify whether information is from a reputable source and if it is helpful or harmful for you to incude in your approach to eating and health. You only want to begin integrating information from outside sources once you have a neutral approach to nutrition (i.e. eating apple pie has no more emotional meaning than eating an apple) and you have unlinked food from self-worth.
The Religion of Thinness, Leanness, and Muscularity
In many ways, Fear-Free Eating is not really about eating at all. It’s about letting go of our obsessions around food and weight so that we can get in touch with the deeper needs of our spirits – our values, our purpose, and what gives our life meaning. (By ‘spirit’, I’m not reffering to a ghost living inside your body. I’m referring to living ‘in spirit’ – living an inspired life full of joy and love and peace).
Many of us are disconnected from these deeper spiritual needs because our quest for thinness or leanness or muscularity has become like a religion for us. We devote huge amounts of time and energy to achieve a certain body shape, and, when you break it down, this pursuit of thinness or leanness or muscularity, functions like a religion:
- It provides us with idols whose bodies we want ourselves – models, social media influencers, #inspo…
- It encourages the use of rituals like calorie counting and macro tracking
- It creates myths (e.g. the perfect body will give us the perfect life)
- It creates rules and moral codes which cause us to judge ourselves (e.g. not eating ‘clean’ means we are being careless with our health
- It creates a community of people who are all pursuing a fat-free body
- It promises salvation – if we achieve the body we want, our lives will be problem-free
Instead of following our dreams and pursuing our real purpose in life, dieting and controlling our body becomes our religion – our daily purpose. Weight loss and continually trying to change our body becomes the thing that gives our life meaning because we have lost touch with our deeper values.
Fear-Free Eating involves mind, body and spirit. By connecting with our spirit, we reconnect with our deeper values – health, love, peace, and compassion. When we reconnect with what gives our life meaning, instead of deriving a sense of purpose by striving to be thin, our purpose comes from being kind, being brave, being a mother, father, daughter, son… It comes from our work, the joy we bring to other’s lives, and from all the things we have to contribute to the world around us in tiny ways every day.
Our obsession with eating and weight masks our unmet spiritual needs (all those things that give our lives meaning), so by meeting our spiritual needs, we can let go of dieting and live a healthier, more fulfilling life.
If you interested in this more, I would highly recommend reading Michelle Lelwica’s book on The Religion of Thinness.
Media Literacy and Cultural Criticism
We live in a fat phobic society. And this probably isn’t going to change anytime soon. This means it is important we develop the skills to be able to deconstruct and reflect on the messages we are exposed to about food, weight, and our bodies so that we can understand the impact they have on us.
We are not born believing we should have a certain body shape or be a certain weight. We learn that there is something wrong with our bodies from society. And because we have learnt this, it means we can unlearn it. Fear-Free Eating involves questioning our assumptions around dieting and weight loss so that we can think for ourselves instead of blindly accepting the messages diet, fitness, and wellness cultures promote.
This may include:
- Becoming aware of the manipulative power of the media
- Identifying how and why certain media images (e.g. magazine front covers) make us feel insecure
- Journaling our responses to images we come across
- Questioning who produces the photographs and why (e.g. magazines put certain body types on their cover to sell magazines – it’s a business)
- Collecting extreme photographs from the media and training ourselves to reflect on them with curiosity rather than judgement and comparison
- Going on a social media fast and reflecting on how our feelings towards our body changes
Developing media literacy is all about waking up to the ways the media and dieting industries manipulate us in order to sell stuff (e.g. magazines, beauty products, diet foods, even nutrition coaching…). Rather than consuming these manipulative messages passively, media literacy helps us to pay close attention to the underlying messages, begin to resist them, and instead practice peace with our bodies.
Meditation is powerful tool in Fear-Free Eating because:
- It helps you connect to your inner world (including your appetite)
- It reduces anxiety around food by teaching you how to be present
- It helps you separate fear-based eating thoughts from your true self
- It helps you break unhealthy habits and create healthy ones
- It teaches you how to be compassionate towards yourself and others
- It helps you respond to stressors in your life in healthy ways instead of through starvation, emotional eating, or over-exercise
- It helps draw your awareness inwards so you can tune into your appetite and eat in accordance to how your body feels rather than according to food rules
- It helps you reconnect with yourself, with others and with the world to shift your focus away from food/body/weight and towards your real values and the things that give your life meaning
I have explored the role of meditation in Fear-Free Eating here: Meditation and Eating Disorder Recovery