intuitive eating
Sarah Biren
Sarah Biren
March 2, 2024 ·  7 min read

Intuitive Eating: Saying Goodbye to Fad Diets

Dieting has become so normalized that it walks the line of unhealthy food restrictions and often eating disorders without anyone noticing. Many people have experienced some version of the following: Whether they want to slim down for an event or become tired of carrying excess weight, they join one of the many diet regimes, which usually includes eliminating high carb foods, including many favorite dishes and snacks, and a workout routine. Sounds harmless, right?

On their surface, fad diets do seem harmless; what’s wrong with cutting ‘bad’ foods and replacing them with ‘good’ foods? And for a while, the routine works and the weight comes off, until old habits slide back, often with multiple binges on ‘forbidden’ foods, and the pounds return along with a deep self-hatred. And the cycle continues.

“I didn’t understand that the binges were created from the restriction,” says therapist Molly Bahr on the topic of unhealthy food restrictions. “I thought I was an animal.”

Often, the problem is an emotional one. Eating salad for three meals a day won’t fix an emotional dependence on food. Chugging water won’t heal low self-esteem. An intensive workout won’t cure loathing toward oneself and one’s body.

Our society’s relationship with food has become distorted. Scroll through social media for a few minutes, and there are two opposite extremes being featured: one side posts images of decadent ‘cheat day’ foods with an underlying tone of overindulgence, while the other side has pictures of perfectly posed and edited thin models showing off their workout routine and perfectly plated ‘clean eats.’ 

Eating today has become this idea that the food on your fork can either kill you or cure you,” says Evelyn Tribole, a dietitian who coauthored a book on this topic. “It’s gotten to a point of almost religious fervor.” [1]

In fact, according to a survey by the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, over 75% of American women partake in some form of disordered eating behavior, thoughts, and feelings related to food and their bodies, despite their issues not being severe enough to warrant eating disorder diagnoses. [2]

Fortunately, there is a middle ground that is healthy for one’s body, and perhaps more importantly, for one’s mind.

Intuitive Eating: A Case Study

Shelli Johnson had a problematic relationship with food for most of her life. She was overweight by the age of five and this issue worsened as she aged. This lead down a path of dieting and restrictive eating that merged into bulimia when she was thirteen.

“I wanted to eat for emotional numbness, but I knew I wouldn’t lose weight if I kept the food down,” she says. “And I did that for years — until age 30. I was really ashamed of that.”

She developed the habit of hiding food and eating in private, whether it was in the bathroom stall at school where she was bullied, or in her closet at home.

It’s always been a yo-yo,” she says. “I tried any crazy, weird diet, like only eating rice cakes and lettuce. It made me crazy, the ‘you can’t eat this, you can’t eat that.’ I’d lose 70 lbs. and gain 85 back, then I’d lose the 85 and gain 90. It was nuts.”

When Johnson was pregnant with her first son, her weight as at its all-time high of 304 pounds. Her yoyo dieting continued after the birth and through her next pregnancy.

“I finally wrote in my journal, ‘If it’s not about the food, then what is it?’” she says. “It couldn’t be about what I was eating, because I had tried every diet out there. I realized that it’s not about the food, it’s about how you think about the food.”

What is Intuitive Eating?

At the age of 48, Johnson began practicing intuitive eating, which is an eating style that promotes a healthy attitude toward food and one’s body image. Here’s the gist of it: eat when you’re hungry, and stop when you’re full. It means no more relying on diet books to dictate what, when, and how to eat; instead, it’s about relying on one’s own intuition.

Intuitive eating is something that is found naturally in many children who refuse to eat after feeling full, but people tend to unlearn this technique once they practice unhealthy eating habits such as eating beyond satiation or eating emotionally. Eating to satisfy emotional hunger leads to an endless cycle of regret and self-hatred without fixing the underlying emotional need.

“There’s no rules,” Johnson says. “I don’t have any off-limit foods — if I want a doughnut, I have a doughnut, but I’m usually satisfied after a bite or two. It’s so freeing.”

Relearning intuitive eating did take time, but Johnson began to distinguish the difference between hunger and the craving to eat for other reasons.

“It was people in my life that I didn’t want to be in my life. It was me feeling trapped and like I had no choices. So instead of dealing with that and making a choice, I would just go eat,” she says. This helped her make healthy choices outside of food to create a better life for herself.

Unlike most trendy diets, she didn’t lose weight immediately; instead, the numbers on the scale would occasionally increase or decrease. “I started charting my weight, and I realized my body was actually going through cycles, so I don’t freak out about it.” Since then she had found a healthy spectrum within she allows her weight to fluctuate. “I feel comfortable there,” she says. “And if I go up or overeat, I stop and ask myself what’s actually going wrong, because I know it’s not about the food.”

Best of all, Johnson has improved her self-esteem, which she speaks about in her book about her journey: Start Where You Are Weight Loss.

“Before I’d say no to a lot of things because I didn’t want to be seen, I wanted to fade into the background as much as possible,” she says. “I’m a lot more confident than I used to be, and I’m willing to put myself out there.

It’s for people who are just tired of dieting. I don’t believe that diets work — I think people need a lifestyle change, and this will hopefully help.” [3]

Unlike diets that require costly meal plans, nutritional smoothies, food-storage systems, frozen dinners, juicers, and other kinds of equipment, intuitive eating has limited marketability besides for books and professional coaches, and still, the fundamentals of intuitive eating can be read online for free.

“Once you get it, you get it,” Bahr says. “You don’t have to do therapy and meet with a dietitian for the rest of your life.”

However, that doesn’t mean that intuitive eating is a guaranteed way to fix one’s life. “If any health professional or coach or Instagram influencer says you can lose weight with intuitive eating, run away,” Tribole says. “No one can tell you what’s going to happen to your body, including me.” It all depends on a body’s natural weight, which may not match up with society’s notions of a ‘healthy’ weight. Yet it’s important to remember than skinnier does not always mean healthier, as many eating disorders can attest.

Here are 10 Key Principles of Intuitive Eating

  1. Reject the diet mentality
  2. Honor your hunger, because hunger is not the enemy. Eating when your body is hungry can prevent further eating later on.
  3. Make peace with food, because food is also not the enemy. 
  4. Challenge the food police, the ones in your life and the ones in your head. Get rid of the notions of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ foods, and declaring yourself ‘good’ and ‘bad’ based on what you eat.
  5. Respect when you feel full. Check-in with yourself during meals; one way to test if you’re full is paying attention to whether you are still enjoying the food or just eating because it’s there.
  6. Make meals enjoyable. Choose foods that taste good and sit down to savor them. The more satisfying a meal is, the less you need to eat to feel full.
  7. Honor your emotional needs without using food. Try out other coping methods, such as reaching out to friends, walking, meditating, or journaling. Notice the difference between physical and emotional hunger.
  8. Respect your body, and view it as capable and beautiful, instead of criticizing it. Attitude can change how you feel about yourself.
  9. Shift your focus when you exercise from losing weight or “burning off excess calories” to feeling energized and strong.
  10. Care for your health with gentle nutrition. Food should taste good and make you feel good afterward. Your overall diet is what’s important; remember that one meal or snack isn’t going to ruin your health. [4]

Read More: Intermittent Fasting for Women: A Beginner’s Guide


  1. Amanda Mull. The Latest Diet Trend Is Not Dieting. The Atlantic. February 22, 2019
  2. University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Three Out Of Four American Women Have Disordered Eating, Survey Suggests. Science News. April 23, 2008
  3. Julie Mazziotta. This Woman Lost 174 Lbs. Through Intuitive Eating: ‘It’s So Freeing’ People. January 4, 2020
  4. Kerri-Ann Jennings, MS, RD.  A Quick Guide to Intuitive Eating. Healthline. June 25, 2019