Table with a spread of a variety of fruits, vegetables, juice, cheese, crackers, meat, and bread. Photo credit to Pexels stock images

What is food neutrality and how it fits with intuitive eating

If you spend a day listening to how people talk about food you’ll hear the words good, bad, healthy, unhealthy, never foods, sometimes foods, and more. And for many people these descriptions create feeling of anxiety, guilt, shame, regret, and general discomfort about eating any of the bad foods.

If you want to create a positive relationship with food and find food freedom, practicing food neutrality is important.

What is food neutrality?

The concept of food neutrality describes all foods as being equal, meaning there are no good or bad foods. 

No, I’m not saying all foods provide the same nutrition. Really I’m talking about removing the “good” and “bad”—the “healthy” and “unhealthy”—labels from food. 

The idea of food neutrality receives a lot of pushback from diet culture which promotes the idea of healthy and unhealthy choices. Diet culture advocates for focusing on a healthy lifestyle and using food and exercise to change the shape, size, and appearance of our bodies. For years when I was practicing dieting I would claim it was because I just wanted to be healthy, but really deep down it was about the number on the scale to me.

The major problem with this approach is how much it complicates our relationship with food and actually makes it harder to eat a consistently healthy diet.

The problem with labeling healthy foods vs unhealthy foods

In general, humans just have a natural tendency to make judgments and draw conclusions. So when we label foods as being good and bad. And for many people, myself included, they tend to make whether they are eating “the right food” mean something about themselves. 

I experienced this and see it in the people I work with. When a part of diet culture, we start making the food we eat mean something about ourselves. 

I hear it all the time (and used to say it myself), when I followed my diet I’d say “I’ve been good lately.” But when I was eating all the bad foods would say “I’ve been bad” or “I’m terrible, I have no self-control.”

To me, eating the right foods meant I was being good, disciplined, and doing things right.

And when eating unhealthy foods off the meal plan, I was undisciplined, lazy, lacking willpower, not trying hard enough, and failing…at another diet. 

Sound familiar?

When you make the food you eat mean something about whether you’re succeeding or a failure, you end up on an emotional rollercoaster. 

And if you want to get off of that emotional rollercoaster, then creating a more neutral and healthier relationship with food is the answer. Because when you view food neutrally, it removes the emotional rollercoaster and stress from eating. That way you can focus more on what your body needs and doesn’t need.

But this isn’t just based on my personal and professional experience as a registered dietitian and intuitive eating coach. It’s also supported in research.

Research on food neutrality and intuitive eating

A 2022 study found people who diet experience high levels of binge eating, food cravings, “lack of control” feeling, and guilt about food and their cravings. 

I’m not going to dive fully into food cravings in this blog post and I don’t want to over-simplify things. So let me just say – food cravings aren’t just influenced by restriction, there are emotional hunger cravings and just plain taste cravings. You can read more about these in this blog post about types of hunger

I want to point out research shows intuitive eating is an effective approach for reducing cravings caused by restriction. Learning to have a healthy relationship with food changes how you react to food, cravings, and lowers stress about food.

And in my experience removed that out-of-control feeling I used to feel around “unhealthy” foods.

How to talk about individual foods

Now you might be wondering, if I don’t want to call food healthy and unhealthy, how am I supposed to talk about food?

Honestly, however, you want to. Choose how you want to talk about food on how you respond to different language around food. 

You may be completely fine with calling it healthy and unhealthy. But if you feel a sense of guilt, rebellion, or excitement when thinking about sitting down with a bowl of ice cream because it’s unhealthy. Then it’s a sign that you don’t feel emotionally neutral about ice cream. 

Or if you feel pride and good about yourself because you ate a salad or piece of fruit. That’s also a sign you don’t feel neutral about food. 

I don’t think we really get to a place of feeling fully neutral about foods—it’s ok to feel excited about a food you enjoy, it’s part of satisfaction. 

But if it feels like you’re doing something right or wrong because of the food you eat, then that mindset may not be helping you.

Instead of viewing foods in an all-or-nothing way (like good or bad), try this more food neutral approach. 

Foods have a different impact on your body based on the nutrients they contain.  Try to just focus on talking about foods based on how you enjoy them and how they impact you. That’s the part food neutrality emphasizes.

Instead of eating based on what you’ve read or someone else has told you is right. Decide food based on what feels best for you. Over time you’ll learn to balance emotional and physical hunger cravings so you support your body in feeling good without needing to restrict foods.

How to use a food neutrality approach to eating

The simplest way to think about using a food neutrality approach is to decide to view food based on:

  • How do I like the taste of this food?
  • How do I feel after eating this food?

Make food individual to you. There is no right or wrong here. Just how you want to experience your relationship with food. 

Just use the information on how food affects you to guide your food choices. 

The most challenging part of this approach is removing all those beliefs picked up from diet culture and wellness culture around food. 

You have to unlearn ideas like “you’re not taking care of yourself if you eat dessert daily”. 

And the concept that eating healthy makes you more successful.

You have to unlearn that failing a diet means you didn’t try hard enough and weren’t committed enough. 

I always thought the tips I learned in diet culture were helping me, but they set me up to fail.

Because eating with rules, broke my trust with my body and myself. Intuitive eating allowed me to rebuild that trust and learning food neutrality was a piece of the puzzle to finding food freedom.

Here are some tips for unlearning those beliefs:

  • Build awareness of your beliefs: when you’re feeling guilty, anxious, or anything around food. Write down everything you’re thinking about food, your body, and yourself. That will show you what you’re believing about food. 
  • Start to question those beliefs: Ask yourself do I want to believe this? Is it true? Is there a sliver of untruth to this? Why do I believe this?
  • Practice new beliefs: As you question those old food beliefs, you can begin to explore what you want to believe about food. Ask yourself – how do I want to experience food? What is true about this new belief?

You just keep practicing this process until you unlearn those old beliefs and establish your new beliefs. 

(ps if you want help with this belief? Explore the intuitive eating coaching options to learn how we can work together to create a positive relationship with food, exercise, and body image.) 

Other tips for practicing food neutrality:

  • Break food rules and expose yourself to fear foods
  • Enjoy all types of food (that you want to)
  • Removing the idea of needing to eat food in moderation (don’t overthink it and try to limit)
  • Trusting your body to guide your food choices

What food neutrality is NOT

Because intuitive eating isn’t the common approach to health. There can be confusion and misconceptions about this topic.

So let’s talk about what food neutrality is not:

  • Eating only the foods you used to label “unhealthy” to rebel against old dieting rules
  • Going to make you unhealthy
  • Removing all emotional connection from food
  • Thinking that chicken has the same nutritional value as a potato

Food just is an important part of most culture. It brings up memories, like making Christmas cookies with my family and certain flavors remind me of different times of year (like watermelon in the summer).

Food is different and not all the same. Yet food is the same in the sense that it doesn’t change anything about who you are as a person. 

All food is morally neutral.

Let’s uncomplicate that relationship with food, so it can be simple, easy, and stress-free.

Give yourself permission to enjoy food without adding in the lifelong struggle with dieting, weight, and body image. 

Common food neutrality questions

Can my body really tell me what foods it needs?

Yes, it can. Well, it can’t tell you that you need an apple vs grapes. But you can learn to listen to your body’s hunger and fullness cues to understand what your body needs. 

The human body is so intelligent and it does produce cravings for nutrients it needs (like people who crave beef when their iron is low). 

How do you view food as neutral?

Viewing food as neutral can feel impossible after years or decades of dieting and food rules. It’s ok if it takes a little time to start feeling neutral about food. Start by just building awareness around the foods that you don’t feel neutral about (it’s ok if it’s all of them). Then just explore why those foods don’t feel neutral. From there we question those beliefs and reasons until we get to the place of feeling neutral about food.

How are food neutrality and weight neutrality related?

Food neutrality and weight neutrality both remove your self-worth and self-esteem from the equation. 

These concepts teach that neither the food you eat or the amount you weigh mean anything about who you are. It removes the moral value from food and body size. It’s all neutral and switches the focus to supporting you as an individual rather than focusing on the number.

Disclaimer: This information is written with current research and data at time of publishing, research may change overtime and updates may be made.

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