Tag Archives: calorie counting

Calories: Why You Need More Than They Tell You

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I’ve written about this before, but it’s so important that I decided that it is time for a refresher. It’s important because if you are following the recommended daily allowance of calories, or advice you’ve read on the internet, or used a calorie calculator to try and work out how much your body needs, then you are almost certainly not getting enough energy for your body.

So we all know that currently the RDA is 2000 calories for women, and 2500 for men, but what most people don’t know is that number is too low. Especially if you are under 25. For people in recovery from restrictive eating disorders, it’s wayyyyyy too low. Under-eating is damaging to our bodies and to our minds. People who do not diet and eat by listening to their hunger and fullness cues do not eat the RDA when it comes to calorie intake.

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So let me tell you a story.

In 2009 the calorie guidelines were reconsidered when a study found that energy requirements had been underestimated by 16% (around 400cals). What is telling is how the guidelines weren’t changed to accommodate these new findings. On the NHS website is written

“This news does not mean that everyone can, or should, now eat an extra cheeseburger or its equivalent in calories a day. The advisory committee makes it clear that the revised energy intake recommendations do not mean that people should increase the amount they eat and that, if people do eat more, they will need to do more exercise to avoid being overweight or obese.”

What we have here is science telling us that the current calorie guidelines underestimate the energy REQUIREMENTS, yet we are being told by our medical community and our government to not eat the amount that our bodies need. Regardless of the fact that studies found that we need more energy, the government put this on its website in 2017:

“The new campaign, due to launch in the spring of 2018, aims to help people be more aware of and reduce how many calories they consume from the 3 main meals of the day, in particular when eating on the go. There will be a simple rule of thumb to help them do this: 400:600:600 – people should aim for 400 calories from breakfast and 600 each from lunch and dinner.”

There the government are advising 1600 calories as a rule of thumb, and cited obesity as the reason for this. “As we are the sixth most overweight nation on the planet, we believe it is a sensible thing to do.” A sensible thing to do? To deny scientific findings, which have, by the way, repeatedly shown that the calorie guidelines are inadequate? To me that sounds like irrational fatphobia, and a complete misunderstanding about health, which is a pretty scary thought since this information comes from the government itself, not to mention our health physicians. It shows very clearly how our entire society including the medical community and our government is indoctrinated in diet culture and fatphobia, so much so that they will dismiss actual science in favour of advising that people restrict to stay thin. Even when this is unhealthy. Even when it harms us. How can we accept this?

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So what do we do about providing our bodies with enough energy? As stated above, evidence shows that adult women need around 2400 calories and adult men 2900 calories. This is extremely similar to the calorie guidelines shown on The ED Institute website run by Gwyneth Olwyn, who developed the Homeodynamic Recovery Method (formerly known as the MinneMaud Guidelines). Olwyn has always promoted 3000 calories for men over 25 and 2500 calories for women over 25. Under 25 the recommendations are 3500 and 3000 calories respectively, due to the fact that our bodies continue to grow and develop until around that age. Those who exercise or have children need more energy to cover this. On her website you can read an extremely detailed blog post on why the government approved calories guidelines are entirely inadequate, with far more scientific evidence than this simple refresher.

In remission you will have learnt how to listen and respond to hunger and fullness cues and your body will give you signals in order for you to provide it with the right amount of energy, without counting calories. Until then, it is advised that you keep track of calories in order to ensure that you are getting enough energy for your body (I wrote an entire post on this here). I urge you with all my heart to take note of the science, and take care of your body accordingly. Nourish your body. Respect it. Listen to it. Provide it with what it needs.

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On that note, it is also totally normal for someone in recovery from a restrictive eating disorder to eat far more than the calorie guidelines. This has been coined “extreme hunger” in restrictive eating disorder recovery. Extreme hunger is where you are eating above and beyond the calorie guidelines by quite a bit (e.g. over 4,000 calories). Eating between your guidelines and 4,000 calories is additional hunger but not classed as “extreme”, however the following explanation also applies. The reason you might find yourself eating an extreme amount of calories is because your body has acquired significant damages during your restriction and engagement with disordered and harmful behaviours. Your body needs energy for the day (actual daily guideline amounts – NOT the inaccurate government approved guidelines) but it also needs energy on top of that in order to heal the internal damage done to your body. Some people need more, and some people need less. Some people will find their bodies are calling for a more extreme amount for a shorter period, and some people may find that their bodies are calling for a less extreme amount but over a shorter period. This is something that will taper down in time to settle more around the guidelines, but whilst your body is damaged, it often will need more, and whilst it can be terrifying, it is normal. I always compare it to when burns victims are in hospital and put on a high-calorie diet in order to give the body enough energy to heal the damaged skin and flesh. It is a similar concept in that your body will need more energy on top of daily energy expenditure to restore itself to good health internally. You can read several of my blog posts about extreme hunger that include much more detail here and here. also I have my very own YouTube video on the subject, which you can watch here.

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It is a sad, and frankly terrifying fact that we can not always trust our own government or medical communities to ensure our good health. It is frightening how diet culture and fatphobia are so prevalent in every single area of our society, so much so that we can’t even escape it even when we turn to those whose responsibility is to provide us with accurate information in order for us to be as healthy as possible. What we must do is look for ourselves. Research for ourselves. Critical review the information that is given to us, and then take care of ourselves, and if we can, take care of others by enabling the science to be available to others. And most of all, heal the relationship between ourselves and our bodies, and then listen to them – our bodies have the most reliable information on how much we need to eat, and they share that information with us via hunger and fullness cues. Listen.

You can read my original and more detailed blog post on why we need more calories here.

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Counting Calories and Recovery

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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:

  1. 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.
  2. Get your family to serve you at dinner time, to challenge skewed perceptions of portion sizes, and to learn to relinquish control over amounts.
  3. Stop measuring foods or liquids.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.