For most of her life, Shelli Johnson distracted herself with food.
“I didn’t want to deal with my emotions, so I ate,” she tells PEOPLE for the 2020 Half Their Size issue.
By age 5, Johnson was overweight and it “just got worse as I got older,” she says. That led to dieting and attempts at restrictive eating, which turned into bulimia by age 13.
“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.”
Johnson would always be “hiding and eating.” At school she was cruelly bullied and would eat her lunch in a bathroom stall, and at home she snuck into her closet to binge on snacks.
Through the next decade and a half, Johnson continued eating and dieting.
“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.”
Johnson hit her highest weight, 304 lbs., when she was pregnant with her first son. Her dieting continued after she gave birth in 2001 for another nine years, through another 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.”
For more on Shelli and five other women who changed their life to get healthy, pick up a copy of PEOPLE, on newsstands now
Johnson, now 48, started practicing intuitive eating: She eats when she’s hungry and stops when she’s full.
“There’s no rules,” she 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.”
Training her brain to think that way, though, took some time. Johnson realized that so many of her eating habits were tied up with “what was going on in my life that didn’t have anything to do with food.”
“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. Johnson had to clean up the rest of her life to clean up her food choices.
She also didn’t lose weight immediately — some weeks she would go up, and others she would go down. “I started charting my weight, and I realized my body was actually going through cycles, so I don’t freak out about it.”
Over the next two years, Johnson got down to her current weight, 130 lbs., and lets her body fluctuate between about 128 and 140 lbs.
“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.”
Her new mindset also changed how Johnson thinks about exercise.
“I used to calculate how many calories I could burn, but now I think about exercise in terms of stress relief and mediation,” she says. “I exercise now to get stronger.”
Johnson says her self-esteem has completely changed.
“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.”
And she even wrote a book — Start Where You Are Weight Loss — about her journey.
“It’s for people who are just tired of dieting,” Johnson says. “I don’t believe that diets work — I think people need a lifestyle change, and this will hopefully help.”