Today I wanted to talk about calorie counting, and explain why it was necessary for me to stop this behaviour in my recovery, and how I did this whilst still adhering to my meal plan. I also want to touch on why the behaviour isn't inherently bad, but why it can so often be extremely toxic for those of us predisposed to eating disorders.
I thought it would first be useful to describe what calorie counting looked like for me during the height of my illness in order to evidence why it was so essential for me to stop. My ED was utterly obsessed with, and completely demonised calories - constantly scanning the nutrition labels on anything I ate, forcing me to ignore my natural preferences and always select the item with the lowest value. I was making calculations in my head non-stop, and trying to work out what I could consume within the number I'd allocated myself for the day. I'd stand behind the till at work and scrawl numbers onto scraps of paper, working out my daily, weekly, and even monthly average down to the exact calorie. I could tell you the precise number I'd consumed on any given day because I obsessively worked it out, over and over again - ingraining it in my mind.
This process consumed me and left no space for any other thoughts in my brain. It meant I was unable to engage in life, couldn't connect to others, and was distracted whilst doing my job. On top of this it created a lot of anxiety when making food choices, as my ED needed the lowest calorie option, and the fear of not finding this was unbearable. As we all know, our illnesses are never satisfied either, and so it became a competition to each day consume even less then the one before. This shows why I needed to stop counting calories, but also highlights why it was so hard for me. The behaviour was an obsession, and I was compelled to do it, as whilst the act itself caused me stress, it was still appeasing my ED and so felt preferable to the heightened levels of anxiety that I would incur from not doing it.
So how did I stop?
1. Letting others cook/ prepare food for me
Having my mum make my dinners for me meant I didn't know exactly what ingredients she'd used, what measurements, or what she'd cooked the food in. This meant that whilst my ED was still desperately trying to guess what it would come to, I couldn't count the calories as closely as I had done previously.
2. Trying new foods
Like I said, with familiar foods I was still able to roughly calculate, and so introducing items i'd never had before, helped prevent me from doing this. For me this was enhanced by the lockdown, as I was less able to access the foods I was used to or that I deemed safe. Consequently, I was forced to try different brands or flavours, and with the help of my family, I have avoided checking the calories on these new items, meaning that as time has gone on, they have become just food, rather than a number.
3. Removing nutrition labels
If I was eating pre-packaged food, my mum would remove the nutrition label so that I couldn't check the calories. Initially I fought against this by googling the item, but over time the urge to do so has lessened as I have learnt through repeatedly challenging it, to tolerate the discomfort of not engaging in the behaviour. Over time it gets easier, I promise.
4. Delete calorie counting apps
Getting rid of your tracking apps can help you to stop counting, as although yes, you can still do it mentally or on paper, it is helpful to remove temptation. Furthermore, it is of no use to you to be reminded of the behaviour by seeing the apps every time you open your phone, and you don't want to be able to look back on what you have eaten previously when you're trying to recover.
5. Remember calories don't = weight gain
Using mantras to help reduce the anxiety surrounding not calorie counting enabled me to keep challenging the behaviour and not slip backwards. I think it is good to arm yourself with facts like this one to remind you that your body is not a calculator and that calories are not as relevant as your ED makes you believe.
None of these methods come without the anxiety I mentioned before though, and so in every case it means using our challenge, repeat method. This is because the only way we can lessen the fear we feel from the act of not counting calories is to expose ourselves to it over and over again. In the meantime we can sit with and tolerate the discomfort, and lessen it through the use of distractions and recovery mantras such as reminding ourselves of why we're doing this.
As I said at the start of this post, I am on a calorie based meal plan like many people will be during recovery. Due to this, despite the fact I no longer have the obsessive compulsion to calculate, and therefore am significantly less terrified of exceeding a given number, largely because I wouldn't really know if I did, I do still have a rough idea of my average daily consumption. I no longer though, feel the need to know this as it provides me less and less comfort each day as I'm shifting my mindset to view food as just food not part of a maths equation. That said, I continue to adhere to it, be it not as stringently, because it has been put in place by my treatment team to keep me safe and to ensure I continue gaining weight.
Whilst in a lot of ways, the treatment of anorexia can look similar to therapies used for other mental illnesses such as exposure therapy for OCD sufferers, there is of course another dynamic to ED's. I want to look into this in more detail in the future, but I think we have to remember especially if you are underweight, or malnourished at whatever weight, then there are a lot of physical health risks associated to this illness. Therefore, we cannot always follow such treatments perfectly, as the need to restore our physical health takes priority.
Looking towards other ways in which an awareness of calories can actually be necessary in recovery, I want to discuss increasing your intake. I know that personally that when I was in quasi recovery I would fool myself into thinking I was eating more by making myself larger portions of meals, but really I was just piling on more salad and vegetables. Therefore, we need to be aware in recovery of the need to increase our intake by adding more calorie dense foods and those which offer the nutrients we require. Obsessing over macronutrients can be equally unhealthy, however in the same way a meal plan can be useful, knowing we are giving our body what it needs to heal can also benefit our recovery. Ultimately, it is not essential, and following the methodology of intuitive eating, our bodies will tell us what we need without us having to research any of this. I do however feel that as trusting our bodies is tough at first as we have a very damaged relationship with them, then the help of a dietician if you are lucky enough to have access to one, is not a bad thing. Personally, being aware of my bodies needs has helped me break my binge and restrict cycle, and so has helped not hindered my recovery.
I would love to know your thoughts on the topic of calorie counting and how the behaviour influenced your recovery. I have struggled writing this post as I cannot quite pinpoint how I managed to give it up, and I am conscious that we each have our own unique relationship with it. I hope I've managed to portray why this was necessary for me, but how an awareness of calories is not by definition a bad thing.
More from me soon,
Mais// The Recovery Bean <3