For this installment of “Conversations on Mindful Eating,” we are sitting down with Erica Leon, MS, RDN, CDN, and CEDRD. She is a non-diet dietician, certified eating disorder specialist, and Intuitive Eating counselor. I was so excited to pick her brain about Intuitive Eating vs. Mindful Eating (something I wrote about here) and how she works with people using a Health At Every Size® philosophy. Erica has also developed some great FREE resources that she’ll be sharing with you below.
Q: You practice from an Intuitive Eating framework. Can you tell us a little about Intuitive Eating and how it may be different from mindful eating?
Erica: Intuitive Eating, a non-diet approach to nutrition and health is outlined in a book and workbook by the same name. Intuitive Eating was written by two dietitians, Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch, who realized over 20 years ago that diets didn’t work for their patients who felt shameful after they lost weight, then gained it all back, plus some! They recognized that giving people “unconditional permission” to eat all foods, resulted in less deprivation-driven overeating and binge eating, and more internal awareness of food decisions. This new method became the basis of Intuitive Eating.
Intuitive Eating is based on a framework of ten principles, each designed to help a person integrate the messages of their body with thoughts and behaviors that ultimately put them in charge of their bodies. Mindfulness and mindful eating is a component of intuitive eating, and is used to help people tune in to their internal signals of hunger and fullness, discover which movement patterns are rewarding and to help challenge self-defeating thoughts. Mindfulness is infused throughout the entire intuitive eating process.
Intuitive Eating in a nutshell helps people: move away from the rules of rigid and restrictive eating, away from the idea the he/she is “good” or “bad” for eating “forbidden” foods, and helps heal any related shame or guilt around foods or body shape/size. Challenging diet culture and weight bias is part of this process, and learning and integrating these principles takes time and lots of personal experimentation.
Mindfulness, is based on being in the here and now. To be mindful is to turn one’s attention inward and focus on the present moment, without judgement. Mindful eating is turning attention to the senses — the sight, smell, touch, and taste of a food. To eat mindfully means we take the time to really experience the foods we eat. This is very challenging for people who have been chronically dieting, restricting or overeating to do. Mindful eating is definitely a part of the intuitive eating process.
Q. You call yourself a “non-diet dietician.” “Diet” is so entrenched in your profession. How do you manage to take the “dieting” out of “dietetics?”
Erica: This is a great question! The word “diet” simply means eating pattern. I try and neutralize the word, although the majority of clients have very negative feelings about the word “diet.”
I have been practicing as a dietitian for more than 30 years and realized, just like the authors of Intuitive Eating, that restrictive diets don’t work. Period. I used to prescribe weight loss diets, but kept seeing repeat customers, and more of them with very disordered eating patterns. It became apparent to me that “diets” created strict food rules, a poor relationship with food and tremendous body hatred. I saw this in children, teens and adults! A non-diet dietitian is one who helps people learn to trust their instincts regarding food choices, and whose focus is on health-promoting behaviors, rather than weight loss. A non-diet dietitian also recognizes that behavioral changes are virtually impossible when someone feels shamed. To make lasting changes, we must do this from a place of self-compassion. Weight stigma takes place constantly in our culture by well-meaning but misinformed health professionals who tell people they must lose weight to be “healthier.” We know that health is independent of body weight.
Q: I imagine you have a lot of clients who come to you wanting to lose weight. As a dietician who embraces a weight-neutral, Health at Every Size® philosophy, how do you work with clients who want to lose weight?
Erica: I used to see clients for weight loss, and tried to “meet them where they were.” My goal was always to move them towards a “non-diet” approach. However, all the research on the failure rates of diets, and the health improvements seen with intuitive eating, have made it difficult to work with someone not open to exploring the possibility of a different approach. I work with eating disordered clients whose minds are fully steeped in diet culture. I gently reassure them that I understand their desire for weight loss. I help them work on their recovery by learning to eat in a “conscious”, “intuitive way”, and to put thoughts of weight loss on the back burner. I am very clear that we can “want” to lose weight because we live in diet culture, but that our emphasis needs to be on self-care, compassion and normalized eating, no matter a person’s weight.
Q: You’ve developed an awesome Intuitive Eating online course. Tell us more about that, plus all of the amazing free resources that you’ve created for people.
Erica: I have a few resources for people looking to immerse themselves in intuitive eating. I have a self-paced beginner level online program called Intuitive Eating Basics 101 and a more advanced level, Intuitive Eating Basics 201. These are designed to help a person explore their relationships with food, dieting histories, readiness to integrate intuitive eating into life, and details on making peace with food and body. The program includes recordings of an 8-week live class with several amazing guest instructors in mindfulness, emotional regulation, body image and of course, food and nutrition. The program is taught via videos, audios, worksheets and a Private Facebook Group with lots of support in intuitive eating.
Here is the link to my program: https://ericaleonnutrition.teachable.com/p/intuitive-eating-basics
Here is the link to my FREE Facebook Group: https://ericaleon.com/facebook-group-free/
I have additional free resources on my website for those recovering from disordered eating as well as chronic dieting: https://ericaleon.com/free-resources/
Erica Leon, MS, RDN, CDN, CEDRD is the owner of Erica Leon Nutrition, a private nutrition practice in White Plains, New York. Erica is a non-diet dietitian who is passionate about helping individuals develop a positive relationship with food and works tirelessly to both treat and prevent eating disorders and disordered eating. Certified as an Eating Disorder Dietitian with iaedp and as an Intuitive Eating Counselor, Erica practices from a Health at Every Size (HEAS ®) perspective and empowers her clients to take the necessary steps to achieve optimal nutritional health and wellness.
Erica’s practice offers a wide variety of services including individual and group meal support, cooking programs and in-person and online intuitive eating/nutrition workshops. Erica writes articles for professional nutrition publications, is quoted in the media for her nutritional expertise and serves as a frequent guest lecturer on hot nutrition topics.