Calories in Recovery: Dangerous or Knowledge? It depends...
In yogic philosophy, there's a word - vishudha - that relates to our throat chakra (energy center in the body). Interestingly, the word can translate into poison or nectar. This means the words we use - and how we use them - can be sweet like nectar or harmful like poison. Is calorie counting by itself harmful? Not really. It's just amounts of energy for each type of food.
By itself, it's simply knowledge. It's not necessary - the body is able to regulate itself pretty well - but it's just knowledge.
Yet, in the mind of someone struggling with their relationship with food, it can turn into a method of control or an obsession.
In recovery, people nearly always end up working on changing rigid or black and white thinking. It's inevitable when it comes to disordered eating - "I can't eat cookies...or I'll have to binge on them all day," "Fruit is good but fats are bad," and so on. (not true but examples of what typically happens).
Yet, it's also important not to turn recovery into rigid thinking either - of "Am I doing recovery right or wrong?" There's no one way - or a perfect way - to "do recovery." That's why it's a journey and a process. It takes time, and your intentions or motivations along the way likely will change.
Your desire for recovery at first may start off because your family or significant other is concerned and encouraging you to go to therapy or get treatment. You may not be internally motivated, but you also recognize concern from others.
With time, you may find more external motivations and realize that recovery allows you to go to school, work, hang out with friends, and do other things in your life. You may still have a strong desire to engage in your eating disorder, but you're motivated enough to participate in recovery.
With more time, you may realize that recovery is something you truly want for your mind, body, and heart. Here, you may want to feel normal and free around food and develop a healthy relationship with food, your body, and yourself.
So, how does this relate to calorie counting?
Most of my clients have at some point counted calories - whether using an app or counting in their head. For some (very few but some), I've worked with them while counting calories. Yes, that may surprise you, but here's why.
They were already counting calories when they come to see me, and giving it up would be a huge step. Part of my job as a dietitian is meeting people where they are in recovery and helping guide them to the next stage. While they weren't ready to give up calorie counting, we were able to use it in a helpful way to increasing up to a calorie level their bodies actually needed for health restoration and recovery. With these clients, we weaned away from calories to an overall meal plan (not calorie-based) after a few weeks when they were able to recognize that calorie counting wasn't a helpful behavior for recovery.
During the process, calorie counting was information for them.
They realized that when they ate above their designated calorie limit, their bodies didn't gain 5 pounds overnight. They noticed that by eating the amount their bodies needed, they felt better, had more energy, digestion improved, and other health symptoms improved.
They noticed binging decrease and thinking and mental clarity improve. They learned how to balance their food intake throughout the day rather than skipping some meals or snacks - and what happens when they do restrict or skip a meal or snack.
We would talk about metabolism and metabolic restoration during eating disorder or disordered eating recovery and how calories (just energy) is used in your body, as well as how much you need simply at rest (a lot more than you think!).
Yet, after time, they started to trust themselves more and were able to switch to a more general meal plan of having balanced nutrients and eating regularly throughout the day.
Of course, it takes time to stop counting calories when you have the numbers memorized. Yet, you remember so many other things - song lyrics, math equations, and other random facts that you don't run through your head all the time. You may always know calorie numbers, but you can catch yourself when you start counting.
Catch yourself, and gently remind yourself "Hey, I know I'm used to calorie counting, but I'm going to go read or play a game instead right now." Do something that will engage your brain fully to distract from the constant counting. With time, you'll notice yourself not doing it much anymore.
Throughout recovery, you may find yourself caring less and less about calories and not turning to it as a method of control. You may find yourself choosing foods based on what you really want to eat and your cravings compared to based on calories. This is where you may recognize that when you start to count calories, it's a red flag for yourself to bring yourself back to your self-care tools. Eventually, calories may not be a big deal at all - you may see them and just move on. They can become emotionally neutral over time.
Why do I bring this up?
We can't avoid calories. It's on the front of most food packages, as well as the nutrition facts label. The calorie number is going to be bolded and big on the new label. It's hard to avoid.
What you can do is learn how to approach calories in your personal recovery. Recognize how this may be harming or helping your recovery to find a freedom with food.
If you're counting them, slowly move away from it, especially with the guidance of a dietitian who can help create a meal plan or an intuitive eating approach. The first step may be tracking every other day, then deleting the app. It can take time to get from calorie counting to intuitive eating, so allow some patience along the way.
You can work with a therapist and dietitian to challenge your thoughts about calories - from the enemy to viewing them neutrally or even positively (as energy and enjoyment!).
You can learn to create new patterns when you find yourself tracking and return to self-care instead.
You can trust yourself.