What is a Healthy Relationship with Food?

The term “healthy relationship with food” seems to come up a lot these days – but what does it really mean, and why is it important? Nutrition isn’t just about what you’re eating – how you think and feel about what you’re eating (or not eating) is important too.

Let’s say we have an individual at a party and a homemade chocolate cake is brought out for dessert. The cake looks really good, and the person is still a little bit hungry after dinner. However, they feel anxious as they start thinking about all the articles they have read about how sugar is “evil,” “addictive,” and “toxic.” They aren’t sure about how many calories or grams of sugar are in the cake, since it’s homemade, so they won’t be able to track it in their calorie-counting app. So they decide they’d better skip it. They briefly feel proud of themselves for resisting temptation and “being good,” and then they start feeling like they’re missing out, and planning what kind of “safe” alternative they can have when they get home.

On the surface, it may look like this individual is eating healthy – after all, they are following generally accepted guidelines to limit intake of added sugars. Let’s look a little deeper.

The Problem with Diets

These types of thoughts and behaviours around food are common in our society. We are often told that we need to constantly “watch what we eat” and control our appetites in order to manage our weight and protect our health. However, this type of restraint can actually lead to feelings of deprivation and intense cravings, perhaps followed by bingeing on these forbidden foods and then feeling very guilty (Tribole & Resch, 2012).

Growing evidence suggests that diets do not reliably produce long term beneficial health outcomes or lasting weight loss. Most people eventually regain all the weight they initially lost (Bacon & Aphramor, 2011).

So What Else is There to Do Besides Dieting? 

Ellyn Satter (a dietitian who is recognized around the world as an authority on eating and feeding) wrote this definition of “normal eating”:

“Normal eating is going to the table hungry and eating until you are satisfied. It is being able to choose food you like 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.”

Copyright © 2018 by Ellyn Satter. Published at www.EllynSatterInstitute.org

What is Intuitive Eating?

Intuitive Eating is an evidence-based model that focuses on building “a healthy relationship with food, mind, and body” (Tribole and Resch, 2012). Researchers have conducted studies to measure and identify intuitive eaters. Three key features of intuitive eating came out of this research (Tylka, 2006):

  1. Unconditional permission to eat when hungry and what food is desired
  2. Eating for physical rather than emotional reasons
  3. Reliance on internal hunger and fullness cues to determine when and how much to eat

So going back to the previous example – is the person making the decision to avoid the cake intuitively? Well, they are not giving themselves permission to eat a food that seems appealing to them, and when they are feeling hungry. Their decision to avoid the cake is based on external, rigid rules about food, nutrition, and health. After declining the cake, they feel deprived.

Now, someone might politely decline the cake because they are full from dinner, or they don’t really feel like eating something sweet at the moment. Although we see the same behaviour (deciding not to eat the cake), the motivation is different (and more intuitive).

I want to point out that all of this can be really confusing, and after being exposed to so many messages about diet and nutrition that promote black-or-white thinking about food and health, it can be very difficult to shift towards a more intuitive way of eating. That being said, intuitive eating is not about another set of rules, and it’s not about being “perfect.” So if reflecting on your relationship with food is making you think that it is less-than-healthy, please treat yourself with kindness. Intuitive eating is about approaching all of this stuff with curiosity and compassion – not with judgment.

How Can All of This Help Me?

OK, so now we’ve talked a bit about what a healthy relationship with food looks like. Why does it matter? Well, studies have found that higher scores on the Intuitive Eating Scale (i.e. being a more intuitive eater) were associated with higher body satisfaction, self-esteem, and satisfaction with life (Tylka, 2006). 

Not only is intuitive eating linked with these positive psychological outcomes, but with physical health as well. Intuitive eating is anti-diet, but it is not anti-nutrition or anti-health. Smith and Hawks (2006) found that intuitive eaters tend to eat more diverse diets. And diversity/variety is a key component of good nutrition and a healthy diet. Contrary to the fears that giving yourself unconditional permission to eat might lead to a diet consisting solely of ice cream, chocolate, and cookies, the evidence suggests that intuitive eaters do not eat more “junk food” (Smith & Hawks, 2006).

Photo by Ali Inay on Unsplash

I realize that many people are hesitant to dive into intuitive eating because they fear that their eating will become completely chaotic. Although the initial stages of unconditional permission with food may feel a bit “out of control,” over time, the process actually brings a sense of peace and freedom with food.

Let’s go back to the party where the cake is being served, and a guest who is eating intuitively decides to have the dessert. As they eat, they check in and notice how they feel and how the cake tastes. Maybe they notice the cake isn’t as good as they expected, and they don’t end up eating the whole slice. Or maybe it is absolutely delicious, and the whole experience is super satisfying. And since they know they can eat cake again in the future, there is no urgency to eat as much as they can right now, so they stop eating when they feel pleasantly full and satisfied. Then they carry on with their party and have fun with their friends. In intuitive eating, foods are morally neutral, so eating cake doesn’t lead to guilt and shame.

Yes, nutritious foods are important to nourish our bodies and keep us physically healthy. And when we get rid of the guilt, morality, and rules surrounding food, we can make more space to pay attention to how our bodies actually feel when we eat. A positive relationship with food can help us feel empowered, respect our bodies, and free up time and energy to focus on more important things than obsessing over every bite we put in our mouths. 


Bacon, L., & Aphramor, L. (2011). Weight science: Evaluating the evidence for a paradigm shift. Nutrition Journal, 10(9).

Smith, T., & Hawks, S. (2006). Intuitive eating, diet composition, and the meaning of food in healthy weight promotion. American Journal of Health Education, 37(3), 130-136.

Tribole, E., & Resch, E. (2012). Intuitive eating: A revolutionary program that works. New York, NY: St. Martin’s Press.

Tylka, T. L. (2006). Development and psychometric evaluation of a measurement of intuitive eating. Journal of Counseling Psychology, 53(2), 226-240.