Food Freedom vs Clean Eating

Food freedom is a frequently used term in the nutrition world today, but what does it mean for your clients’ success?

“Eat clean to get lean!” We’ve all heard it.

This is the mantra behind fitness enthusiasts who pride themselves on their ability to not even look at an Oreo. Or refusing to eat a doughnut as they eat their chicken and asparagus instead. I promise they won’t win a trophy for that and neither will your clients.

As a Registered Dietitian I am all for nutrient dense foods and healthy eating, and food freedom fits here.

However, I don’t subscribe to the “clean eating” mindset and it may do more harm than good for a few reasons:

Clean eating lacks a universal definition

What does clean really mean anyway?! For some, it may mean low carb. In others it may mean low fat. Or it may mean low sugar and minimally processed. The lack of a universally accepted definition doesn’t help set someone up for long term success. How can a client stick to something long term if they don’t even know what they are trying to stick to? Unless they drop their food on the floor or in the kitchen sink, it’s safe to eat! Don’t let your clients get into the habit of thinking a food has to be ‘clean’ in order to eat it.

We are attracted to ANYTHING that retreats from us

Read that line again. You know what I have learned from working with 1000’s of individuals over the last decade? We want what we can’t have. Especially food. I’ve seen some health and fitness professionals provide their clients with “approved and non-approved” food lists. I don’t know about you, but if I had a bad day and my coach/dietitian told me NOT to have my favorite foods like Ben and Jerrys, then I am going straight for an entire pint of Half Baked with a big ol F YOU stamped on my forehead. That’s human nature. No one can stick to healthy foods 100% of the time without feeling guilty or remorseful. A GUARANTEED way to set a client up for FAILURE is to tell them to NEVER eat the foods they love. ALL foods can fit in a flexible approach to nutrition.

Avoiding guilt and remorse

 What do you think happens to the client who binged on the entire pint of Ben and Jerrys and “cheated” on their clean eating plan that offers no flexibility for fun foods? They feel like pure sh*t. Then they feel like they’ve let their coach down, themselves down, their dog down. They feel so guilty for giving in to their urges. Or they may end up saying forget the whole thing and end up going on a downward spiral of hot fudge sundae and krispy kreme binges. Nutrition coaching should not be a dichotomy of good or bad, right or wrong, eat this or not that. ALL foods are innocuous by nature and can fit in moderation in a healthy nutrition protocol. Absolutes (always/never) should not exist in a balanced and healthy approach to nutrition.


I would always tell my coaching clients, I’m not here to just help you lose weight, I’m here to help you keep it off FOR GOOD. How can a plan that only involves “clean foods” be long term sustainable? What happens during birthdays, vacations, holidays, and date nights? What happens when you are traveling in San Francisco and the restaurant your friends choose is FAMOUS for their Italian meatballs and you entire dinner party orders them. Are you supposed to sit there and suffer with your chicken salad? How can someone expect to be long term sustainable with such a restrictive, unrealistic approach to nutrition.

In the Dietitian Nutrition Coaching Certification we teach our students how to identify the foods their clients love and can’t live without (non-negotiable) and we teach them how to create nutrition protocols that work in their clients favorite foods and allow them to live a healthy, HAPPY, and sustainable life! Compliance is one of the keys to retention in a nutrition coaching program and your clients are MUCH more likely to comply if they actually enjoy the process and can sustain it. Food freedom is key!

So what’s the answer?

Enter the 80/20 rule.

In my nutrition coaching days, I helped countless people lose weight and keep it off for good by operating under the 80/20 rule. You give me 80% nutrient dense food choices like:

*Lean proteins (chicken, fish, lean beef, tofu, yogurt, cottage cheese, etc)



*Whole grain fibrous carbohydrates

*Healthy fats

Then they take the remainder 20% of your food choices and ACTUALLY ENJOY LIFE. I would much rather have a client know how to fit in one serving of Cinnamon Toast Crunch (my favorite) and fit it into their daily goals. Thus helping them stay on track, eat the foods they enjoy, not feel guilty, and live an unrestricted and realistic lifestyle.

The premise behind clean eating makes sense. Yes, you should eat nutrient dense foods and choose healthy options the majority of the time. I’m not denying that fact. However, my issue is when people label foods as “clean and dirty” or “good and bad”. All foods can fit into a realistic and balanced approach to nutrition. Any food you enjoy can be worked into your daily intake if balance and moderation are practiced.

And this doesn’t mean that you will go and eat oreos and cake 24/7 either. ALL foods fit means ALL foods fit. Oreos and cake aren’t the only foods that exist! 

The 80/20 rule is about eating for BOTH nourishment AND pleasure. You can include both nutrient dense and fun foods in your diet and be comfortable. An obsession with clean eating isn’t actually healthy. 

Drop the restrictive mindset and focus on food freedom and flexibility for long term success.

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