Thank you for your comments on my post yesterday 🙂 just to clarify, I wasn’t suggesting we all burn our bras and quit shaving our legs (although no judgment here if that’s your thing!), I like dressing up sometimes too. My post was about the people who take this to extremes, getting unnecessary surgery or having to spend three hours a day in front of a mirror before they can leave the house. When I said that beauty was a construct all I meant was that there are conventionally attractive humans and there are things like art and music which people call beautiful, but I’m not sure that beauty is a concrete property itself – it’s a description that some people will think justified in any one situation and others won’t. It’s not like brown hair or size four feet, it’s an opinion, and one which differs from person to person. I hope that explains what I was thinking a little better, I tend to get very excitable about posts like that and forget important points in my enthusiasm 😛
Anyway, today’s post is a case of “and now for something completely different”. A few days ago I read and commented on a post by a blogger who was considering the complicated issue of calorie counting in recovery. When I read through the replies she’d had already I realised that I was in a rather unique position amongst her commenters, because on February 12th it’ll be a whole year since I stopped counting.
As is well documented on my blog, when I first started gaining weight nearly two years ago I did it alone, without the input of a doctor or dietician. My meal plan, calorie intake and target weight were all decided on and created by myself. It was pretty simple – I had a relatively light breakfast at 8am because that was usually when my IBS was worst, a snack at 10am, lunch at 12pm, another snack at 3pm, dinner at 5pm, evening snack at 8pm and an optional snack before I went to bed at 11pm if I was still hungry, which I usually was (I really hate the word snack. I don’t know why – it’s not the ED associations because I hated it pre-ED, it’s just one of those words. Like moist! *shudder*). I always had the same portion sizes of carbs, protein, fat, vegetable and dessert at lunch and dinner, just like I had been taught a couple of years previously as a day patient. My routine was highly structured and rigid, for psychological and physical reasons. I couldn’t have just started eating whatever I felt like at that point because I didn’t know what I felt like eating – the task of weight restoration as seen from the bottom of the mountain was huge and overwhelming. My hunger cues were completely screwed up and if I had tried to eat when hungry I would probably have just not eaten. I had no idea what eating normally and healthily (MY definition of healthily, that is!) entailed. The plan helped me deal with anxiety, since I knew exactly what and when I was going to eat. And my poor body was a mess back then, my blood sugar used to go bananas if I didn’t eat my meals at the same time every day. I decided early on that I would get myself out of physical danger first, gain to a healthy weight and then work on quitting counting calories and being more flexible. And that’s exactly what I did for the first year.
Fast forward to February last year, when I had reached and maintained my target weight for nearly a month. I was beginning to think that I needed to start working on my few remaining ED behaviours: counting calories, being rigid about meal times and amounts, weighing everything I ate, and so on. It was quite a terrifying prospect, because like many people with eating disorders I worried that if I didn’t strictly control my intake I would start bingeing, or even just accidentally overeat enough to continue gaining weight. And I was at my target weight already, I’d gained somewhere in the region of 40lbs and I really wanted to stop now, thankyouverymuch. It wasn’t until I went to stay with my friend Antonia for the weekend that I found the courage to let go a little. On the first evening I realised that this would be a great opportunity to practise not counting calories. We were going to be eating out a lot so I wouldn’t know exact numbers, and I could deliberately not tally up estimates. I could think of it as an experiment. I like experiments! That was the weekend I also realised how much my body had repaired itself as my blood sugar didn’t play up at all, regardless of the fact that I was miles off from my usual schedule of meals and snacks. I got home, weighed myself on the Monday morning (I was still doing it weekly at that point), and saw that my weight hadn’t changed at all. Really?! Despite all those meals out, cakes and chocolate bars at weird times of the day, drinks with calories in them – no change?! Hmm.
I decided to extend my experiment and go another week without counting, or even estimating. This meant I also had to stop weighing my food, as if I weighed it I would know how many calories it contained. That was scary, because although my pattern was to habitually over- rather than underestimate how much I’d eaten, I still worried that I would end up eating too much. I also didn’t know what my body would do if I wasn’t eating the exact same number of calories every day. As it turned out, it did…nothing. My weight stayed the same again. It went against everything I had ever believed when I was anorexic, but apparently my body was perfectly capable of maintaining a healthy weight on its own, without me interfering.
I still didn’t get distinct hunger signals at that point, but I learned to watch out for other signs. Generally I would eat something every 3-4 hours, but if I got wrapped up in something and forgot (I always thought people were bullshitting when they said they forgot to eat, but once I started getting my concentration back I did sometimes accidentally miss a snack, or look at the clock and find that it was two hours past my usual lunchtime) I would start feeling a bit cold and dizzy, maybe anxious or confused as well. Those were useful cues to begin with, but obviously it’s not ideal to wait until your blood sugar is all wonky before you eat. I’m still not certain what stomach hunger feels like now because it never really came back, but I can pick up on much more subtle signs now, almost like my body just pokes me and tells me that it’s lunchtime. It’s a clever trick! And even though my intake must vary quite a bit, despite stress and stomach bugs I have effortlessly maintained within 5lbs of my target weight throughout the whole year. I would have found that idea unbelievable a year ago.
I think how and when people in recovery stop counting calories (or exchanges) has to be a very individual choice. I needed to be at my target weight before I tried it – other people might be able to start before then, or on the other end of the scale they might have to maintain a healthy weight for a couple of years before they can cope with not counting. It’s not a test of strength of character or recovery and counting isn’t a physically harmful behaviour, so safety has to come first. If you think not counting will jeopardise your recovery, wait a bit longer. If you think you’re ready and only fear is stopping you, maybe have a go for a week or two and keep extending it if you can. It’s like any other ED behaviour – stopping is unthinkable when you’re still doing it, scary as hell when you first quit and much easier than you thought once you’ve been at it for a week or so!
There could be exceptions but I think if possible, giving up rigidly controlling and measuring intake at a certain point in recovery is a wonderful thing to do. It was very freeing to realise that I could eat out at restaurants or go on road trips or cope with buffets at parties and I would be just fine. I don’t get anxious about doing any of those things now, because I’ve proved to myself repeatedly that my body knows how to maintain a healthy weight. It doesn’t want to be overweight any more than it wants to be underweight, it just wants to sit right here where I’m healthy. After having calories occupying most of my brain for the thirteen years that I had an eating disorder, my year without numbers feels like something to celebrate 🙂