Thursday, September 8, 2022

Counting Calories in Eating Disorder Recovery

Let’s face it: the eating disorder likes control. Counting calories creates a *perfect* sense of control, and so many individuals with an eating disorder and in recovery from an eating disorder therefore turn to this for a sense of safety, at a time when everything else may feel unsafe and unsure.

Here’s another hard pill to swallow: you need to let go of this ‘safety’ to recover, and in order to become free around food again. It makes sense, right? You need to stop trying to control everything (and in the process stop focusing on food 24/7) in order to feel freer.

Like all compulsions, though, counting calories serves a purpose, making it difficult to let go. In fact, during some stages of recovery people do actually find genuine benefit in it too! However, it is never a long-term solution if food freedom is the goal, so here are my best tips to let go:

  1. Remove your barriers. If you wear a smart watch that tracks your steps or use a fitness app that tracks your intake or have a food scale that tracks your portion sizes… GET RID. Even if you still count in your head, this step will be a start, building your awareness of just how much you turn to this maladaptive behavior (and when).
  2. If you do still find yourself counting in your head, and if you feel like nutrition labels are imprinted in your brain, buy items you wouldn’t normally buy. Go to a bakery where there aren’t any labels, or buy products from different brands and then (have someone else) cross out the labels. You can also transfer newly-bought items into new containers. If you find yourself guesstimating the calories and counting these up, distract yourself at those times that you feel most vulnerable to doing this.
  3. Talk back to the eating disorder. Rationalising isn’t everything at a time when emotional distress takes over. Still, talk back to the eating disorder. Don’t let it have the last word. Understand that your body’s weight is so much more than calories in, calories out, and that your weight is determined by your hypothalamus, genetics, metabolic functioning, and more, all to a much greater extent than it is by calories! In other words, we don’t have as much control as we really think — use this realisation to stop wasting time counting up numbers (which, in and of itself, is prone to tremendous error) and start living.
  4. Explore the function calorie counting has for you: does it reduce anxiety, help you deal with difficult emotions, or give you permission to eat? Once you find out its function, explore alternatives. For example, if counting reduces anxiety, try yoga, meditation, or other creative outlets instead. If it helps you deal with emotions, try journalling or therapy.
  5. Be gentle on yourself. An automatic and engrained behavior is tricky to tackle, so don’t expect it to fade from one day to the next. Instead, keep challenging it but don’t beat yourself up if things don’t change at once. Progress takes time.

If you are struggling, please do not hesitate to reach out. Most people find it incredibly hard to do this alone. Remember: you can do this and I believe in you!

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