Eating Free: A Labor of Love

Oct 30, 2012

template-bannerimage-article Manuel Villacorta  font 24 pt white frame drop shadow copy

I met Manuel when I became an Academy Spokesperson last year.  He’s a very likeable guy – lots of fun to be around.  When he told me about his new book, Eating Free, I knew I wanted to check it out and knew it would probably be good, solid, evidence-based.  But I didn’t know I would love it.  

Having been an RD myself for 20 years who has worked with thousands of clients on weight control, I really feel like Manuel is onto something big.  If you just read the introduction and the first chapter of his book – you will see what I mean.  You can feel his genuine concern and, in my opinion, his breakthrough approach to this topic.  Manuel pulls together different concepts and issues that we hear about from time to time but don’t really focus on much, such as the connection between adequate sleep and weight control, how “healthy” eating does not always equal weight loss, and how exercise does not necessarily lead to weight loss, either.   But most of all, he focuses on regaining the enjoyment of food – an art that is lost among many who have struggled with food and weight issues.
The book is so well written.  There are no gimmicks.  It’s passionate, penetrating and it gets to the heart of things.  I think this book contains such meaningful information, and that it really is for everyone – not just for overweight or obese people.  Even people who have 5-10 pounds to lose or who just want to be healthier and have a better relationship with food will get so much out of this book.
Check out the book’s video trailer.

Manuel, how did you become interested in a career in nutrition?
Growing up in Peru, eating was hardly a concern. Preparing and eating a meal was as normal and necessary as, well, breathing! It never occurred to me to plan when or how to eat. I woke up, I ate breakfast, I got hungry, I ate lunch, and then, when I got hungry again, I had a snack. The day ended and I had dinner. Plain and simple.
Then, as a young man, I moved to America. Swept up in all things American, I found the social dining behaviors extremely fascinating. Eating was not an unconscious act here—it was a practice fraught with rules that people obsessed about. Suddenly, there were all sorts of foods I was told to avoid, including meat, rice, potatoes, bread, sweets, chocolate, and sometimes even fruit—all the staples of my native childhood diet. I learned that, for discipline’s sake, I wasn’t supposed to eat when I was hungry. Snacking was taboo. And since I was so busy with school, eating became the last priority on my to-do list.
At the time, gym culture was the rage. Forget spending time outdoors. It was all about the treadmill, weights, protein bars, and powders. And guess who started packing on the pounds? In fact, I gained 15 pounds in my first year here. Isn’t it interesting that once I began to obsess about weight, I actually started gaining?
Convenience stores, sandwich shops, cafés, and restaurants were abundant. Since I didn’t know how to cook, I ate out regularly. No longer was going out to eat a celebration; it became a commonplace activity.
No matter how hard I tried to acclimate, I hated eating a cold sandwich for lunch. I ate less, I slept less, I gained stress, and I gained more weight. I knew instinctively that something was wrong, so I wrote a letter to my mother (this was before the advent of e-mail) and asked her to send my favorite recipes from home. I knew I needed to learn to cook if I wanted to enjoy the quality of food—and the act of eating—as I had in my younger years.

Such an interesting past and experience that brought you to the world of nutrition!  What prompted you to start your company, MV Nutrition, and when did you start it?
After becoming a registered dietitian, I decided to start my own private practice.  In 2004 I started out with the idea I wanted to do Medical Nutrition Therapy (MNT) – diabetes, hypertension, etc.  But no one was coming in for that.  People found me online (my website).  This was before social media – it was through the yellow pages!  Everyone wanted to lose weight.  I didn’t want to ‘do’ weight loss, but if I wanted to survive in private practice I had to do what people wanted.  For the first time I had to change the way I think – to give people what they want/need.  I didn’t want to just talk about healthy eating, however, I wanted a comprehensive program.   So I came up with my own guidelines and principles such as eating 70% of calories before dinner, and so on.  I took all the evidence-based recommendations and developed online tools such as trackers.  I put it all together.  I believe that’s why I got so many clients in my office – because I was giving them tools that no one else was giving them that help them keep track of food and behaviors which in turn helps with meal planning and behavior change.
The tools (which are free but you do need to sign up to access them) include videos, food and exercise record keeping, weekly summary pages, recipes and recipes analysis, label reading tools and more.  If someone has the motivation, they can go to my website, use the tools, and lose weight for free.  I get emails from people saying they’ve lost 30 pounds on my program.  The next step was figuring out how to monetize all of this – I’m doing so through my private practice, speaking engagements, etc.

Is that what prompted you to write your book Eating Free? 

















About 3 years ago I decided to write the book.  Yes, it was born out of the day to day work I’ve been doing in my office for years in San Francisco.  I wanted to share in my book what I’m doing in my office because of the great successes I’ve seen with my clients.  And although I didn’t have my principles and philosophy down, I still knew what I wanted to write.

So your program came first, then your book.  In the book you say “The program is named Eating Free because it teaches people how to eat free of guilt, deprivation, hunger, bingeing, fads, boredom, and yo-yo dieting.”  Your program/book addresses Food, Rest and Energy Expenditure (FREE).  You emphasize a more positive and enjoyable relationship with food, slowing down instead of “eating healthy on the go”, addressing stress and tracking behaviors.  While your program and book are built on the basics, it pulls together some interesting perspectives on macronutrient distribution, your 70/30 principle (eating 70% of your calories before dinner), and exercising for health, not for weight loss.  It also contains 7 day sample meal plans and recipes, tips for including the whole family, insight into stress management and menopause.

Yes, Eating Free exposes the scientific truth about safe, steady, and sustainable weight loss, while encouraging dieters to enjoy the foods they love. Based on groundbreaking research, an 84 percent success rate with my clients, and my personal passion for eating as a way to strengthen bonds and enhance the quality of life, I offer something more than another diet, fad, or trend. Eating Free is a lifestyle—a nourishing and satisfying, as well as sensible and effective, way of eating, every day.

Tell us about the proposal and publishing process you went through.
I wrote the proposal and presented to about 10 agents – all of whom rejected it.  So I rewrote and submitted to 10 more – all rejected again.
The reason was that they wanted to know what my “platform” was (my media presence, my “following”).  They also wanted to know what was unique about me and my program.  That’s when I decided to hire a PR branding company and they came and assessed my practice and clients and success.  They did the branding.  And although it cost money, it was worth it because it took only one month compared to years of my time.  So, now that we had a brand, we needed a platform.  The consultants knew I had “personality” but still needed help with social media and other exposure.
I also knew I needed to be in the media more so I applied to become an Academy spokesperson.  I hired a public relations expert who helped me to become a contributor for FOX News, Univision, Huffington Post, CNN, and more.
I went back and rewrote the proposal with my philosophy and then presented it to an agent and in MINUTES he wanted to talk.  This was 1 ½ years ago.  Then the agent shopped the idea to the publishing houses and got interest within one week.  Health Communications, Inc. (who published Chicken Soup for the Soul) was the one I decided to go with.
Writing the book was the fun part, the easiest part!  Overall, this was 3 years of incredibly hard work.
Now that it has been released (May 14, 2012) I’m busy promoting the book.

So, what types of things are you doing to promote the book?
I have been promoting it myself through both social media and media outlets I have connections with. I have also been working with Mouth PR, a PR company in NYC. My publishing house, HCI, has also been promoting it.

What do you want other RDs to know about your book and your program?
It’s not a specific formula.  It’s about your relationship with food, with cooking. Eating Free looks at an individual as a whole, and does not rely on solely calories in – calories out. Stress levels, sleep, meal planning, self-care, and time for you are all taken into account.

In addition to being an Academy spokesperson, what other media/communications do you specialize in?
I’m in my third (final) year of my first term as an Academy Spokesperson.  In addition to that, the Latino media has given me lots of attention.

Yes, it’s great that you can also have such a presence in the Latino media!  What skills or experiences do you recommend RDs cultivate if they want to write a book like you or do media/communications in general?
I would recommend asking yourself “What is your goal?”  For me, my book is just one part of what I’m building.  It’s so important to have a very clear goal.  If you want to write a book to make money, then you should self-publish.  If you want to write a book to get name recognition, you should go the publishing house route.  Also, because of my love of food – I do advise RDs to learn how to cook so they can show their clients about flavor and the enjoyment factor in eating.

That is really great advice and although I’m not very ‘culinary’ myself (my motto is “If I can cook it, so can you!”) I’m thrilled to see more RDs combining the nutrition world with the culinary world, and at the very least, we can emphasize the enjoyment of food with our clients!
What comes naturally for you and what do you have to work harder on when it comes to writing?
I am not a writer by trade and the book needed to be written very well. For me, hiring a ghost writer was key.  It helped me save so much time.  The person I hired did my program and she ‘gets’ me.  She loves food and cooking, and she doesn’t have any hang-ups about food.  She was a perfect match to write for me.

You really did find the perfect match – the writing is wonderful.  Do you think this is something other RDs should consider doing and if so, why?
Yes – reach out to a ghost writer when your book is not the only project in your life. I run a successful private practice in San Francisco, which happens to be my main source of income. The book had deadlines, while I still had clients to see. If I did not connect with a ghost writer the process of developing and writing the book would not have fit into my busy life.

Manuel, thank you so much for sharing your story with us.  I’m so excited for you, your practice and for your wonderful book!
Be sure to visit Manuel’s website, check out his book and follow him on Twitter @EatingFree.  Don’t forget about his great resources for those who want to track not only calories, but their complete meals and food groups.  For Spanish speakers, please visit  Stop Dieting and Start Living!

Note: In order to sign up for the free tools, you need to create an account, which is free.  You go through a four step process in order to get the information needed to create your “prescription”.  Your free account provides a customized meal plan using 45% carbs 30% protein 25% fat and corresponding freebies (food group allowances). Also free online food, exercise record keeping, weekly summary page, recipes and recipes analysis, label reading tool to add your products if needed, FreeQ score keeping, weight and body fat% graphs and tutorial videos on all food groups and how to use all online tools.

Final note – I’m sure Manuel follows his own program – and just look at the results! 

Did you enjoy this interview?  Click here to read more!




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ABOUTI’m the Guilt-Free RD® – “Because food shouldn’t make you feel bad!™”. So, on my Food for Thought blog I’m exploring the secret ingredients needed to enjoy your food with health in mind.  I’m also a “Dietitian Enthusiast” so I’m showcasing interviews with dietitians.  My “How To” Series shares practical advice to help boost communication skills and gain more visibility, influence and success.

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