When your dietician gives you a meal plan, it most often looks a little something like this: 1 fat source, 2 carb sources, 3 oz protein, 1 veggie, etc. No where in this meal plan are CALORIES the focus. And yet, somewhere along the way as we’re following our meal plan and attending our weekly dietician appointments, we begin to associate the meal plan with calories. I remember when I was given my meal plan that called for 3 carb sources. I was full as it was. How the hell did my dietician actually expect me to eat all 3 carb sources when I hardly wanted one? So, my anorexic side that still very much existed tricked the system. I started to focus on “how can I eat a carb source that has the least amount of calories?” Of course, as with any behavior with anorexia, this became very habitual. Soon enough, I was choosing only the lowest calorie options that still “fit” into my meal plan and “followed” her orders, while also becoming extremely calorie focused.
Anyone else see the negative side effects of calorie-focused recovery? The same holds true for maintenance. The calorie-focused mindset is something that is normalized in society. I can’t even begin to count the number of calorie-counting mobile apps there are, or how easily we can find the caloric content for just about any food item by a simple Google search. So it’s no wonder that when we’re in recovery, we feel like we should also have the “right” to count our calories. Here’s the problem with this.
My friends are counting so why can’t I?
Simply put, and maybe harshly put: because they do not struggle with anorexia. Calorie-counting only encourages the eating disordered thoughts that we already have. I’ve seen multiple friends of mine use calorie-counting apps. They sometimes forget to input their day’s worth of calories. Other times, they underestimate their portion and end up with an inaccurate count for the day. Personally, I know that while I was in recovery and had I chosen to use a calorie-counting app, I would have FREAKED the heck out of I did one or both of these things! This is the difference here. My friends didn’t feel like a failure if they exceeded their recommended day’s intake. They did not restrict for the next day to “make up” their calories. And they certainly didn’t feel guilty for it.
It encourages the notion that “low-calorie” = “healthy”
When we begin calorie-counting, then we start to focus on one thing, and one thing only: the number listed on the nutritional label. So when we see something that is listed as “low-calorie” or “low-fat,” our eating disordered side may instantly rejoice! However, when our eating disorder begins to associate low-calorie options as a synonym for what it means to be healthy, then we are ignoring all the other aspects of food. Instead, we are making snap judgements about food and it’s nutritional value based entirely on ONE number while missing out on the bigger picture. For example: have any of you tried Walden Farms products? Sure, the zero calorie label, zero carbs, and zero fat may seem extremely enticing to anorexia. What isn’t so enticing, however, and what we seem to be ignoring, is the fact that there is no nutritional value in these products! Instead, they are filled with ingredients that I cannot spell or pronounce, and that I most certainly don’t want to be putting into my body.
Stress, stress, stress
A study was conducted to examine the effect that monitoring intake and restricting intake had on both psychological stress and biological stress. The results showed that monitoring your intake increased psychological stress (no kidding), but restricting intake increased physiological stress (or cortisol levels) even when subjects felt no psychological stress. Basically, your body still is stressed out when you diet even if you don’t feel unhappy or stressed about it. Think about it this way: if you’re stressing over your diet (whether it is psychological or biological stress, or both) then it’s pretty much undoing at least some of the “health” benefits you are trying to achieve in the first place.
Calorie-counting makes it nearly impossible to intuitively eat
Counting your calories automatically creates a huge disconnect between your hunger levels and how much you allow yourself to eat. So let’s say my day’s intake called for 400 calories at lunch. If I reached 400 calories, that must mean I need to stop eating EVEN IF I’m still hungry. At this point, the calorie-focused mindset tells me “you’ll just have to wait until your next snack or dinner.” Over time, this can set yourself up for never really feeling satisfied, and dependent on a calorie count to determine if you’re actually hungry or full.
Do this instead:
Focus on nutrients. Focus on giving your body as much nutritional value as possible. In all honesty, it wasn’t until very recently that I gave up counting my calories. The two most positive results of this: more time for myself and enjoying the moment I am in, and also a hell of a lot more freedom. Instead, I began to focus on providing my body with food that is dense with nutrients. I started to care less about a label, and more about how the food made me feel after eating it. For example, my lunch the other day was a nova-lox (salmon) sandwich with chive cream cheese, butternut squash noddles with feta cheese, and a handful of almonds. Was this calorically dense? Probably. Let’s face it: I’ll never be able to simply eliminate my knowledge of caloric value of the food I’m eating. However, what I can do is choose to stop allowing it to impact my food decisions. Instead, I focused on the fact that my meal was balanced and was so rich with nutrients.
Does the girl who eats 900 calories a day seem healthy to me? No. Maybe she appears to be “in shape” by society’s standards, but the bigger picture of health calls for us to assess and examine the behaviors we use to reach what is considered “healthy.” A restrictive diet is not necessarily healthy. Monitoring everything you eat just to reach the “magic number” of calories by the end of the day is not necessarily healthy. Health does not equal a number, and it is most certainly not measured by the amount of calories you give your body.