A year without numbers

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 🙂

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10 responses to “A year without numbers

  1. I always enjoy the depth of thinking and analysis you put into your posts Katie 🙂

    I will e-mail you a just-published journal paper that discusses eating in eating disorders. This paper focuses on the control of appetite and emphasises that recovery from anorexia nervosa (AN) involves de-sensitisation to the aversion people with AN have towards eating. The hypothesis is that people who are vulnerable to developing AN are particularly sensitive to ‘fear-conditioning’, and that AN comprises a conditioned aversion to eating by association. The fear associated with eating and food may be triggered by a variety if different things. For some it may be body image related, but for others an association of eating with, say, nausea, or loss of control.

    Like you I have always struggled with anxiety and OCD. I also have a number of other traits that made me vulnerable to getting stuck in anorexic behaviours. I have been very impressed with the way that you have devised your own meal plans and gained weight of your own accord. Not many people can do that! I did devise my own meal plan, and I counted calories in recovery, but I needed a lot of help coping with the anxiety concomitant with eating more (and I don’t mean medication). Whether the following is just due to poor interoceptive awareness, I really don’t know… but I have to keep an eye on what I eat; and that means forcing myself to consume MUCH more food than I desire, as well as to eat when I’m not hungry. This may be because I was a very faddy eater from being a toddler. I’ve never really enjoyed food.

    But, I actually do love numbers, charts, graphs etc., because they make my life feel more predictable. I used to find calorie counting very satisfying!

    Great post 🙂

  2. Really great post. I think many people don’t even know where to start when it comes to breaking habits that have become so ingrained, and it helps a ton to read about how other people did it…and succeeded!

  3. awesome post – as a fellow long time non-counter (lol) I certainly agree that it’s a really important stage in recovery. and in any case if you DO do it to early or find you need to go back to it that’s fine…I’m horrific at counting now cause I forget to look at packets before I throw them away and so forth if I try (now that would have been a strange thought when I was ill!) but I do try sometimes, if like Carrie I feel like I’m in a stage of not having the desire to eat what I need. I think that may have more to do with gastroparesis and post-AN hypermetabolism than much else though annoyingly :/. but *anyway* point is you can always go back. and like you, stopping in the first place was one of the best moments for my recovery :D. from my experience now, my worries before I stopped that I would ‘naturally’ not eat enough were more of an excuse than anything, because despite the fact that people with EDs do have a tendency to do that, you *know* when it’s happening after a week or so when you’re hungry and losing weight, and you can correct it by just eating more without counting half the time. I guess maybe for me the anxiety was over not having minute to minute control more than anything else, especially while I was gaining so the urge to micromanage it was stronger.
    but yes, I have rambled a lot: my point is – your post rocks, calories fail 😛
    xx

    • “I forget to look at packets before I throw them away and so forth if I try ” – haha! That’s brilliant. Encouraging, too 🙂

  4. Nurse Converse

    This is something I’ve been really struggling with lately. I’m not at a dangerously (or at all) low weight so there’s not that goal for me, I’ll get to a healthy weight then see if I can stop counting. But I habitually undereat when I don’t count, thinking I am eating enough, which then leads to binges, so I think counting for a while is the best bet.
    Congratulations on your one year anniversary 🙂 And many more.

  5. Seriously, i have come to find reading your posts as an incredibly soothing and helpful part of my battle with this ED. So much of what you say makes sense of the jumble of thoughts in my head, its like you can spell out the words i cant quite read! 🙂

    It is so reassuring to read about your journey into non-counting. I have been trying to let go and just aloow myself to eat for what seems like months now, yet i always seem to fall back into that “im not hungry so why should i eat” situation. Seeing how you put your day into practice to help with the lack of hunger cues inspires me. cos right now, i AM like that. i have no idea what normal eating looks or feels like. I work as a teacher and i see how the kids eat and t reminds me of how i was when i was a kid. so FREE, just eating when hungry or sometimes, just eating cos we feel like it. I wish i could get back to that, cos i find this constant need to try and NOT eat such a pain! i genuinely want to get back to normal, but my body is so whacked out from normality, that i cant seem to find my way back and dont trust myself enough to take a risk and experiemnt!
    If you have any advice or just experience from when you started the weight gaining, Please send it my way!!!
    And kudos to you for another great and well articulated post 🙂
    x

    • p.s. did you exercise at all when trying to recover?? cos this is something i really struggle with. i know i probably shouldnt as it is very much wrapped up with feeling i can “earn” food. but i am an active person and find it hard to stop without feeling guilty….

  6. I always appreciate how non-preachy and non-judgemental yet informative/encouraging your posts are. Sometimes I feel like like there’s this pressure to “ohmygodyoumust stop counting calories because it is so disordered…deal with it NOW”.

    I still count calories, and admit it is partly due to the sense of security on a psychological level. I used to have certain numbers I couldn’t go above (these numbers have varied over the years, thank fully they have been significantly higher this past year!). These days I’m not so strict about sticking to a certain number, just so long as I *know* how much I’ve consumed. I tend to try to follow my desires more (though still eat when not hungry, because like you I rarely get stomach hunger. More my brain just shuts down or my chest feels hollow), which means that some days I may more than the last day, or less. The point is that in the long run it balances. I may not get ‘hunger’ as such, but I will get a craving for, say, chocolate, and then I find out that perhaps I was a little under, or hadn’t eaten as much the day before. I’m learning that my body can be trusted to balance itself. I just need my training wheels a little longer, until I can trust my mind.

    I do want to stop calorie counting – but it has shown me that my body will naturally balance it’s intake – and that consuming more one day does not mean I’ll consume even more the next day and so and so on until I’m eating 50000000 calories a day.
    In a way counting also aleviates the stress of unknown food items. I realise it’s still twisted, but knowing how much I eat at home/for the majority of the time makes eating coffee shop scones or the odd dinner out more approachable. Lately there have been a few incidents of “Now, what looks nice??” rather than “Now, what looks like the safest option?”, and that is a massive shift in my attitude. Previously any unknown thing was deemed unapproachable, so progress has been made!

    The other reason I still calorie count is that I do tend to ‘overestimate’ (possibly deliberately, which is not good), and as much as part of me thinks I’m fine where I am weightwise, I could probably do with gaining another 6 or so pounds since I’m still lacking my period, and the last time I had it that was the weight I roughly was. I got fed up of counting this summer, and decided to use a few days in Prague as an experiment, but lost a couple of pounds, which in itself caused a slight psychological setback. I’m a little fearful that if I do stop counting, and if I lose a pound or two, then it’ll put me in the “down” mindset (like in Labyrinth, when she’s caught by the hands and they ask up or down? And she replies “Well, I’m pointing down anyway…”). Counting is currently a way to hold myself accountable.

    I do want to get to not counting, though, but I feel that working on stabilising my relationship with my body and psyche at this new-ish weight (and a little higher) is more important right now, so that I can push it to obtain the mythical period ;).

    Anyway, thank you for this, and sorry for writing so much. You just made me actually stop and think through it a little bit.
    🙂

  7. You know, it all just faded for me.
    As the months, years passed, all of the behaviours and obsessions with numbers faded too.
    There wasn’t a day it just happened.
    I just remember, a good few years back, that I noticed I didn’t care.
    And that has remained now I am recovered.
    I never believed the day would come.

    I was fortunate, I had people around me who challenged me.
    Who picked up on odd behaviours, or what have you.

    But oneday, I noticed it had all gone.
    I now never have eating disordered thoughts.
    Or panic over what I eat.
    I just do.

    The only consideration I have had of recent months, is actually upping my intake, consciously, due to psychological stress.

    It is freeing.
    Amazingly so 🙂

  8. diamondintherough

    Wow Sia Jane, your post is really inspiring. As is yours Katie!

    I’m a bit in between, I don’t usually *count* but I make sure I know how much is in what I’m eating. I never really add it up and find out a total, I just keep track. I don’t really have a calorie limit anymore either, but my brain/body tells me when to stop. I think that’s the problem. I still can’t trust my mind and I rarely feel hungry in the ‘my stomach is rumbling’ sense, more in the ‘oh ****, I feel like I’m going to faint, I should probably eat’ sense. It doesn’t help that I’ve never really had an appetite and I get full really quickly.

    I’ve realised I tend to overestimate how many calories I eat when I don’t count but I’m finding that when I do count I want to limit it to a ‘safe’ number, which is a bit rubbish for obvious reasons. I don’t really know where to go from here because counting makes me restrict and I’m unintentionally restricting when I’m not counting. I suppose the obvious thing to do is just eat more but I’m so so scared. I don’t like anorexia. I really don’t. :S

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