EDITOR’S NOTE: This FACES interview took place well before COVID-19 arrived and impacted Nashville. Some of the responses have been updated accordingly. Please read with that in mind. Thank you.

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Healthy eating is not a one-size-fits-all approach. Now more than ever, we’re seeking new and improved ways to support our health. With a concept that revolves around eating intuitively, Jessica VanCleave, a registered dietitian and Nashville native, helps her clients find their “food freedom” through a non-diet approach. Her virtual sessions provide one-on-one nutrition consultations, while her corporate wellness programs are assisting companies in creating a healthier office culture — even during work-from-home scenarios. Meet our newest FACE of Nashville, Certified Intuitive Eating Counselor Jessica VanCleave.

Jessica VanCleave

Nashville-based Jessica VanCleave offers virtual nutrition services.

What made you decide to launch your own business?

I’ve been a practicing dietitian for the past seven years, and I just launched my private practice in January. When I was in my internship, I spent a week with a private-practice dietitian here in Nashville. I loved seeing her interactions with her clients because it was really personable. She was meeting them over a cup of coffee instead of in a sterile doctor’s office, and she was making her own hours. It was always in the back of my mind as something I might want to do. When I had my daughter, almost three years ago, I realized I wanted something more flexible. That’s when I kind of started to put it together. I also dived into a new realm of nutrition — intuitive eating and “Health at Every Size” — and the traditional nutrition schooling wasn’t teaching that. I wanted to be able to practice that, and it was harder to do in a healthcare setting, so, I started specializing in intuitive eating and built my practice around it.

Can you explain what it means to “eat intuitively”?

It’s not the “hunger fullness diet,” which is what a lot of people think. It’s not the “I eat when I’m hungry; I stop when I’m full,” and that’s it. It’s a set of 10 principles, and it’s someone who makes food choices based on their internal cues and their own experiences without feelings of guilt. It’s ditching the diet mentality – making food choices that don’t revolve around making you look better or losing weight. It’s “How does this make me feel? Do I enjoy this food? Is it nourishing to my body?” We’re all born intuitive eaters. Think about a baby that’s nursing or taking milk from a bottle; they cry when they’re hungry, and we feed them. It’s nourishment, it’s comfort, and they stop when they’re satisfied. They don’t have any feelings of guilt or shame or counting calories around it. Then we get older, and diet culture comes into play. Diet culture is all those messages that tell us, “You don’t know what’s best for you. You need someone to tell you how many calories to eat, what foods to eat or not eat, how to move your body …” We lose that connection and rely on outside sources. Intuitive eaters take back control over their food intake and how they move their bodies. If anything, this is the time we need to be thinking about self-care. Intuitive eating adapts and adjusts to what’s going on in your life, so it’s not going to look the same as it did two months ago. Be kind to yourself and remember it’s an evolving process. Continue to nourish yourself because, during times of stress, a lot of people overeat but a lot of people also under-eat. Our hunger cues kind of get blunted by stress and anxiety, so I’m encouraging people to remember to eat and fill themselves. Even if you aren’t moving around as much, your body still needs fuel.

Jessica VanCleave holding a plate of cookies

“There’s a lot of good research around intuitive eating — a lot less stress around eating is a good thing!” Jessica tells us.

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Your concept also revolves around finding “food freedom,” and you are a “Health at Every Size” provider. Tell us about that.

Health at Every Size (HAES) is a trademarked term from the Association of Size Diversity and Health. It’s an approach to health that’s weight-inclusive. A HAES provider is inclusive and respectful of the care of patients and clients, regardless of their body weight. We encourage healthy behaviors that honor people’s experiences. When someone comes in with a larger body, a lot of times what providers and even dietitians will do is automatically prescribe weight loss. They’re not listening to the client or what their experiences have been in the past and what the symptoms are; maybe it’s completely unrelated to weight. I care for my clients at any size, and I don’t weigh them. It’s never a marker that we use to measure success. Most people I talk to — clients, friends, family — would say they don’t have food freedom these days. They don’t feel free to make their own food choices. There’s fear around food — gaining weight, getting a disease if they eat certain things, being shamed, guilt. So, people are eating the food they like, but they’re doing it in secret, or they feel ashamed of it. Food freedom is taking back that control over making food choices for yourself.

What services do you offer?

My main service right now is one-on-one nutrition counseling. I offer all of my counseling services virtually, so I meet with my clients via a secure video platform rather than in an office. A lot of providers are doing this now — it gives us the ability to reach more people. I have clients who aren’t necessarily in Nashville, and people don’t have to take an hour and a half lunch break and dig into their PTO and unpaid hours to see healthcare providers they want to see. I’m doing virtual nutrition counseling based primarily around intuitive eating and people who have issues with chronic dieting. When people are talking about their health and their personal issues, it can be more comfortable to be at home and not have to sit in a sterile office, across from somebody at a desk. There’s just something a little more casual about it, which I think people like. Then I’m also doing corporate wellness services, and that can be done either via webinar or locally. Group presentations are easy to do via Zoom! If most of a company’s employees are working from home, and they can offer them a quick 20-minute webinar about self-care during the quarantine, I think that’s beneficial.

Nashville dietician at computer

With a business based in virtual consultations, Jessica is successfully navigating the current climate, continuing to offer nutritional services on both one-on-one and corporate levels. “I have a handful of premade presentations such as mindful eating, simple snacking and meal planning, and I also do custom presentations,” she explains.

What do your corporate wellness programs entail?

It used to be that a lot of larger companies were doing it for their employees, but now even super small companies are doing wellness programs and perks for their employees, which I think is great. Research shows that wellness programs benefit not only the employers, in terms of healthcare costs, but the employees themselves. Retention rate on employees is higher because people feel like their employers care for them and their health. Employees typically take less sick days because they’re healthier, not as tired and not as stressed. It’s more than just lunch and learns — there are all kinds of things companies can do for corporate wellness incentives. There are absolutely virtual corporate wellness options that can be beneficial.

My brother’s company might just start working from home from here on out because their productivity has gone up — that’s something to think about. Finding ways for corporations to still stay engaged with their employees in that way is important. If you’re not seeing someone on a regular basis, you still need to make sure their health is in check and they are exercising self-care. Giving employees options for that outside of the office is going to be crucial because a lot of people are still going to work from home after this — even when things go back to “normal.”

Jessica VanCleave in orange sweater

Staying hydrated is one nutritional tip Jessica feels most — or all — of us can benefit from. “Hydration is one thing we all have to have to live,” she explains. “Mild dehydration is common and can be a cause of fatigue, headaches, irritability, constipation — a lot of things that we might blame on other things.”

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What do you feel is the biggest challenge we face with nutrition?

Too much information and misinformation. Nutritional science is ever-changing; we’re learning new things all the time. The recommendations are changing. Between social media, blogs, books and Google, people are just bombarded with so much conflicting information. It can get really confusing and cause a lot of fear and stress around food and eating. I always tell people, “Do your research. Know who you’re getting your nutrition advice from because a lot of people are giving it. Be sure it’s sound information, not just somebody blogging about it, and saying, ‘This worked for me.'” It doesn’t mean it won’t work for you, too, but it also doesn’t mean it’s scientifically backed.

What are your favorite food splurges?

The goal of being an intuitive eater is that there are no food splurges. There is no cheat day; it’s all just food. If there’s something I’m craving that’s out of the ordinary, I usually eat it. When we say, “Oh, I can’t have something bad,” it creates this novel excitement around it versus if we make it ordinary. It doesn’t have as much hold on us anymore. Having it if you’re in the mood for it and putting it away when you’re done is usually the best option. Then you’re not thinking about it anymore.

If I’m going to spend money on food to really enjoy it, my favorite is an awesome cheese or charcuterie board. Cheese, meat, bread and good wine. That’s totally where I’m at. I could live off of that.

Jessica VanCleave eating a cookie

Jessica notes, “A lot of times, people think having food freedom means ‘anti-nutrition’ and ‘anti-health.’ That’s not the case; nutrition plays a role. If somebody has Celiac disease, for example, and going gluten-free is the treatment for them, then that’s what we have to do. But putting unnecessary restrictions around food and eating is just not helpful.”

What is the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?

The most consistent advice I’ve gotten was from my dad. Every day before I left for school, he would simply tell me to smile. I took that as, “Just be kind to people.” I think kindness is one of the greatest gifts we can give that’s free. So, just smile.

Aside from faith, family and friends, what are three things you cannot live without?

Naps, coffee and true crime documentaries. I love them!

Learn more about Jessica VanCleave on her website. Click HERE. Thanks to Leila Grossman for the beautiful images.

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