It seems like something that would be counter-productive to suggest, but counting calories is a really important part of recovery – especially during the initial stages. Counting calories is very likely a large part of you or your child’s (or partner’s/sibling’s/friend’s et) eating disorder, so it can seem like madness to say ‘continue doing this’, but hear me out.
Whilst counting calories was used as a way to restrict, it now needs to be used as a way to heal. So we are turning around a negative habit and using it to make sure that the person recovering gets enough energy into their body. Getting enough energy is essential for recovery, and it is likely to be something that proves impossible to do unless someone is counting the calories of the person recovering.
For most people it will be you; the recoverer, that counts. Sometimes it will be parents or partners. Either way, those calories need to be counted because after an eating disorder, people have unreliable hunger cues. The body has gone so long without food that it has repressed the signals, and so it can take a long time for reliable hunger cues to return again and for the body to learn to expect food and give signs as to when it needs it. This can mean that eating can feel like a chore to some. It could mean that you will have no appetite and feel too full, but it is important to ensure that you continue eating adequately regardless. It could mean that you feel really hungry sometimes, but other times have no appetite. Respond to any hunger or cravings that you have, and continue eating enough even when you don’t have an appetite. You may have reliable hunger cues straight away, which would be great and would lead you to eat what you need to eat in order to recover. Responding to mental hunger is also really important. Mental hunger is just another signal from the brain to tell you that you are hungry. All signals come from the brain, and it is crucial to listen. So if you don’t feel the physical signs of hunger but are wanting or craving food, then it is necessary to listen to that signal and respond to it – always.
So how are you going to count calories? I would advise staying away from apps such as MyFitnessPal, as they can be incredibly triggering due to the fact that they try to suggest restrictive amounts to eat, and they are an app focused on weight loss. You could just use a ‘notes’ app and count it up yourself and keep the number on record for the day there, or you could write ‘500’ as many times as adds up to how much you need to eat on a sheet of paper or on a notes app on your phone, and just cross it off every time you reach 500 calories. This can mean that you know you are getting closer to your goal but don’t need to count the number if not thinking of the number helps. If your parents or partner are very involved in your recovery, they could do the counting for you if this is possible and more beneficial for your recovery.
Calorie counting can be triggering for many people, but the alternative of under-eating is much more harmful. Under-eating – which many people in recovery will do due to unreliable hunger cues if they do not count calories or have them counted for them – will mean that the body cannot heal. Mental and physical recovery are interconnected, so if the body is not getting enough energy, this will also impact on mental recovery also. Under-eating means that neither mental nor physical recovery will be able to take place, so counting calories until your hunger is reliable is a necessity. This is one habit that will have to be saved until a bit later to break – which is okay, because there are many habits and thought processes to manage, change, and break, and there has to be something that is saved until last (or later on)!
So you’ve been counting calories for a while and making sure you that you get the energy that your body needs. How do you know when you can stop counting and start going by hunger? When you start feeling like your hunger is happening in a reliable way which is consistent with when you should be eating and how much you should be eating, you can start thinking about testing out that hunger to make sure that it is naturally bringing you to the amount you need. A good way to test how reliable your hunger is, is to write out everything you eat for a week (or two weeks), and then count it up for each day, add it all up to get the total amount, and divide it by seven (or fourteen). The average figure should come to around the amount that is suggested as the minimum for you to eat during your recovery (this is around the amount that you should need forever). If it is three hundred to four hundred calories below that total, then I would really suggest that you continue to count calories as your hunger signals are likely to be unreliable. Most people will naturally and intuitively eat the amount recommended for them, or close to it, as this is the amount that an energy-balanced body needs each and every day. Some people do have hunger that is below or above the average (for example, someone who is expected to need 3000 calories for their age, gender, height, and activity levels could find that they naturally eat 2400, or 3600), and that is absolutely okay. However, if you are eating more than three hundred to four hundred less than what is recommended as adequate, it is more than likely that it is your hunger cues that are unreliable and you still have a little way to go before they are back to normal. If, say, 2400 calories is your normal hunger, eating 3000 for while longer will not have a negative effect on your recovery process, and will not have an impact on your weight. Your body will adapt to deal with the excess energy by putting it to good use (e.g. to continue repairing your body) or the metabolism will speed up to burn it off. (As a side note, when you are adding up your calories for those tester seven days, if one day has a really low amount, and another a higher amount, for example, 1000 calories one day and 4500 the next, this is a sign of unreliable hunger cues, even if the average does come to around the amount suggested for you. As a second side note, if you are consistently eating well above and beyond the minimum you require for recovery, your hunger cues are working and you are experiencing extreme hunger or higher energy needs still, which is totally normal for recovery).
So let’s say your hunger cues seemed reliable, and testing this out has shown that they are, now what? You can start trying to eat intuitively, but you will need to keep reassessing yourself to make sure your eating disorder is not sneaking in and manipulating the situation. It is important that you eat what you want, when you want, and don’t let the anxiety of stopping calorie counting come out in other ways, such as restricting certain foods types or resisting eating something you want because you are worried you are eating more now you have stopped counting. It is going to make you feel more out of control, but it is important to continue onwards, and not use any other behaviours.
But how do you go about stopping counting calories? Calorie counting is a hard habit to break. It can become so ingrained in you that it can happen even without consciously thinking. There will be different things that work for different people, but here is a list I put together with some suggestions about how to stop counting:
- Get yourself and your family to put labels over the calorie amounts on packets etc. This can deter you from looking and also remind you when out of habit you try to check that your goal is to not look and not to count.
- Get your family to serve you at dinner time, to challenge skewed perceptions of portion sizes, and to learn to relinquish control over amounts.
- Stop measuring foods or liquids.
- Eat intuitively for one day (or even one meal). In a week or so, try doing it for two days (or meals). Work your way up until you can ditch the habit altogether.
- Visit cafes, restaurants, cinemas, and other places that are uncaloried to get you used to eating meals where you don’t know the calories to face that anxiety and start to overcome it. You can then start trying to do this at home and challenging yourself there.
- Listen to your body and its signals (this is also something you should start doing as soon as you get into recovery, even when you are counting calories). Follow your body and tune in to what it is telling you, rather than going by calories you’ve already eaten today or any other calorie “rules” you are sticking by. Start learning to listen to mental and physical hunger, and also learn that you can also eat when you are not hungry if you fancy it.
There are only six suggestions here, and there will be countless other things that can help. If you have any tips that helped you or someone you know, write them in the comments below so that others can benefit from it too!
Counting calories and not counting calories are both big parts of the recovery process, and both relevant at different stages in your journey. Again, make sure that you are not using compensatory behaviours when you start trying to eat intuitively and stop counting calories, such as eating smaller portions, cutting out calorie dense foods, or not drinking liquid calories, out of anxiety. Learning to eat intuitively without compensating due to anxiety is a big part of recovery. You need to learn to eat what you want, when you want, without letting your ED get on the stage with you. Make sure it is not running the show, or even making compromises with you. It doesn’t have a place in the life that you are creating for yourself. This life is yours, and yours only.