Quit counting calories?!
If you would have said this to me a month ago I would have thought you were nuts. I have calculated everything that has gone into my mouth (even tried to estimate in inpatient hospitals!) for years and honestly, I didn’t know if I could shut my brain off from its counting routine. Why? I can’t answer exactly why, what day or how I began the obsession, but one thing I can say for sure is I like measurable success, numerical terms to evaluate how I am doing. In school you could ask any of the four boys I lived with, I was fanatical about getting A’s; obsessed to a really unhealthy point where I literally never went out my junior year. My life was the gym, school work, being a waitress, and cheerleading. I barely interacted with my roommates, teammates or other friends when they begged me to come hang out for a few hours and now looking back, I missed out on some pretty good times.
The pattern continued when I began my weight loss venture my senior year. Cheerleading was over so I was no longer doing my daily gym session and having practice. I was spending more time being sedentary, glued to a seat in the library, still working hard for those A’s, and I was getting married in less than a year, so of course I needed to look good in the dress. At first I cut down on the snacking. I really didn’t need the extra fuel anymore since I wasn’t as active and I think I had snacks more out of habit than hunger. And after a few months I lost about 10 pounds. During this time I also started running and Ryan and I signed up for our first 5K. I have mentioned in other posts that although I knew I wouldn’t be super fast, I still felt like I needed to set a goal (a numerical assessment of my progress, of course) and work towards it, which my competitive mindset turned into “RUN EVERYDAY FASTER, FARTHER, DON’T STOP!!!” So these two things jump started my brain into the desire to learn more about nutrition. I have also said in other entries how my household growing up had relatively strict diet rules….no caloric beverages, fruits and veggies at every meal, fat free salad dressing only, no chips or other “bad” snacks, we skip the cheese, etc. so once I really began to evaluate my daily eats, I decided to rule out a lot of choices, and become more portion savvy.
The weight continued to drop and I felt great! Every time I would go in for a fitting at the wedding dress boutique the little old greek woman would tell me she had to take it in again. It was another measurement of success. To this point I did not weigh myself, or count calories. The calorie obsession began when I downloaded the app Lose It! to my iPhone. This handy dandy little tool (NOT!) asked for my stats such as height, weight, gender, activity level, and produced the amount of calories I “could” eat in order to keep losing.
Around the same time I read an article about determining accurate portions by using a food scale and measuring cups/spoons. Well what do you think I did? How could I be perfect in assessing my caloric intake without these things? I drove to the store and immediately got a the scale, and two sets of measuring cups so I could keep one in my purse in case I was ever in an emergency situation where I would need one (seriously, tell me this isn’t abnormal?!…remind me to tell you a pretty embarrassing story about Ruby Tuesdays, the salad bar and my measuring spoons!)
So now I had a computerized log to plug my meals in and tell me if they were appropriate, and some new gadgets to make sure I was doing everything properly. I told you I like numbers, and I obviously have a bit of perfectionism instilled in my brain, as evident by the ridiculous studying rituals, so put all these things together and it is a recipe for disaster. And it continued to get worse! I could not eat unless I knew the exact portion I was having. I didn’t go to restaurants because heaven forbid they would put oil on my vegetables! I literally avoided any social situation where there was food. Like my obsession with getting good grades, this prevented me from having a good time! But I didn’t care because as long as I was still strict with my caloric values, and the number on the scale was going down, I was successful. It was a measurable way of telling me I was doing something “right.”
Obviously you can’t maintain this lifestyle when you are in a hospital. They prepare and serve you all your meals so really, you have no control on what you get (control is another post in itself, so stay tuned for that). To make me, and all the other patients, stop obsessing the dieticians in the hospital gave us a meal plan based on the diabetic exchange system. But as eating disordered individuals we feel like we can outsmart the professionals. Duh we know a starch is 80 calories and 15 grams of carbs! We know everything! So I could easily convert the exchanges into calories and figure out my meal plan. I had a fit when I discovered the “ridiculous” number they felt I needed, but for some reason eating in a hospital is easier then when you have to live with the choices YOU make at home. For some reason you can justify eating bigger meals when someone else tells you you HAVE to.
And when I got home, vowing to continue the meal plan I was prescribed, I just starting counting calories all over again. I mean really, what if I didn’t want that much fat! A person can have taste preferences, right? No one wants to stick to a rigid number of starches and proteins! (No eating disordered person that is! we want to stick to a rigid number of calories) Slowly I started cutting corners here and there and six months later the process began again when I went to residential, and repeated the next year at another stint in in-patient.
Trust me, DO NOT FOLLOW THAT PATH…I never ever want to spend another holiday in a treatment facility, have all my stuff searched, have to wait to use a phone because they take away your cell. It really isn’t a fun life, so please please please, if you can push through recovery!
But back to the main point to this entire, lengthy post. I have worked with the same outpatient nutritionist for a while. She has seen me go in and out of hospitals, different, facilities, etc. She knows my tricks, and I am very honest with her because, after all, she doesn’t watch me consume my meals and has no reason other than she is a kind-hearted person, to care one way or another if I listen to her advice. As long as I come to a session, she gets paid. So she knew my brain was hard-wired for calorie counting and she gave me a definitive number to hit every day. No questions, I MUST meet this number every day or I could not take my daily walk. (As for running, that was completely out of the question) I came close a few times but it never exactly hit, or went over the amount she wanted me to reach…Why?
Because when you count calories you become obsessed with keeping the number in a range you feel is “ok.” Her number was not ok! I thought it was preposterous that anyone could need that, but week after week my weight would stay pretty close to the same and she would say, “CJ, you can’t argue with science, or math, your body needs more because your weight isn’t going up.” (She obviously knows my obsession with numbers in general.)
So with some new found motivation I went into a session and told her I had to stop counting. If I didn’t stop counting I could never ever meet my goals. I couldn’t do it because after I reach a certain number I just cannot make myself eat more. It is unsafe, uncomfortable, and I panic.
She looked at me and asked how I thought I could stop counting and why did I not do it sooner? I guess I didn’t have a reason to do it sooner? You would think life would be a good enough reason but I guess it wasn’t for me. So for the past week, YES WEEK, I have not calculated a single thing that has gone into my mouth. For all you counters out there, I hope these things can help you too..
1. Buy food you do not know precise nutritional values for…
I love farmer’s markets and local companies for this because if you get bread at the bakery in town, or Great Harvest when it is not pre-sliced, you really don’t KNOW exactly how many calories you are consuming. You can guess, drive yourself crazy trying to estimate, but you don’t KNOW. So I am not eating foods mostly without nutrition labels, which seems to be better for overall health anyway.
2. Evaluate your hunger/fullness.
Similar to intuitive eating I operate on a hunger scale…1 being I am famished and could eat my arm off at any second, and 10 being so full I need to un-button my pants and roll away. A 7 is where most people feel comfortable and satisfied. I know in the weight gain process comfort is not the name of the game. I need to be at least an 8 to know I am eating enough.
3. Distract, Distract, Distract
Find something to do that occupies your brain other than calorie counting. Knitting and crafts didn’t work for me because my brain still roams back to destructive thoughts. Actually writing has helped me in the aspect of distraction. I usually blog, comment on other blogs, or do some work to prepare for school after meals and snacks to avoid over-thinking what I just ate.
4. Go with your first instinct.
I used to meticulously calculate every meal and say “Oh if I have these pita chips I can’t have a sandwich I need a salad.” WRONG. Sometimes I want a sandwich and the darn chips. There is nothing wrong with that! Go with what you are hungry for because 9 chances out of 10 you are going to be more satisfied and not agonizing over your next meal thirty seconds after you eat.
Your body seems to know best. It’s a pretty miraculous thing, actually, how well our bodies try to take care of us and sustain life. After all, look what it did when you were starving or undernourished. It slowed down your heart rate to preserve energy, gave you linugo to keep you warm. Trust it, and as my therapist tells me, don’t judge the process. It takes time and eventually everything will even out, it just requires patience. No one I have ever met that is fully recovered regret their decision to give up ED, but people in the process quit when it gets hard…Let me tell you, every day is hard, but you can do it J
I hope you all have a wonderful rest of the weekend!