‘When I Was In The Grip Of An Eating Disorder, Counting Calories Seemed Like A Magic Fix – But It Fuelled My Obsession’

The size of the nation is under the spotlight, but the Government's focus on the number of calories we consume risks creating a whole new set of problems, writes Marianna Manson

Calorie counting eating disorder link

by Marianna Manson |
Updated on

I started this year, as I do every year, with the goal of losing weight. As I made plans for my “hot girl summer” and festivals fitting back into my size ten cut offs, the pandemic took hold and like many, booze, takeaways and minimal movement was the approach I took to dealing with the stress. When the time came to buy a size 14 pair of jeans to actually leave the house in, my 18 – 24-year-old-self hated me. For her, a size 14 body was disgusting, unthinkable, and she fiercly kept her size eight one by restricting her calorie intake to triple figures and never, ever missing a workout.

But while in the intervening years I’ve worked to disregard the idea that the only worthy body is a thin one and that mental and physical wellbeing is more important that the number on the scales, I’d be lying if I said that girl didn’t still keep me up at night, planning what I will (and won’t) eat the next day. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t disappointed in myself when a GP warns me to ‘watch my weight’ because my BMI is tipping and that my old life of restriction and emotional turmoil seems like it would be worth it just to be thin again.

After his own brush with Covid, Prime Minister Boris Johnson was urged by doctors to lose weight, with the virus affecting those in the ‘overweight’ or ‘obese’ categories more severely. Johnson dutifully lost a stone in a month through exercise and moderating his calorie intake and has now suggested a number of measures to tackle rising obesity such as a ban on two-for-one deals on “unhealthy” food and adverts for fast food chains until after watershed.

But his third proposal – to have major food chains include the calorie counts of dishes on their menus – will be triggering for nutritionists and the eating disorders community who have been actively working to dismantle the damaging conditioning that obsessively counting calories over generations has caused.

We know that calories are not a comprehensive (or even a particularly good) measure of nutrition, but counting them can very quickly develop into an obsessive behaviour and a deeply disordered relationship with food that can take years to unpick.

Occasionally I’ll half-joke that I’d like “just a touch” of anorexia – the same condition that, for a decade of my life, dominated every waking moment with numbers and deficit and how calories translated into seconds on the treadmill and how many I would have to do to burn off the porridge I ate beforehand. Lots of people seem to welcome the idea of calories on menus, if only to make their own disordered relationship with food easier to manage. For me, training myself not to constantly check the calories in a shop bought sandwich or a coffee has taken years and it’s only since I’ve stopped doing it that I’ve really been able to enjoy eating again.

READ MORE: Obesity, Coronavirus And The Uncomfortable Conversation We’re Not Having

“One of the major addictive pathways that is triggered by the sugar/fat combo in processed food is dopamine – the reward hormone,” says Functional Health Consultant and Health Coach

Fran McElwaine. “Dopamine is also the hormone behind a lot of addictive behaviours such as gambling and gaming (and social media). Each little ‘win’ (or like) floods the neural pathways with dopamine. Counting calories and macros can have the same effect – every time the numbers add up, we get a dopamine hit and this can easily become addictive as we require more and more dopamine in order to get the same lift.”

In so many cases, disordered eating is entirely a numbers game. What I was feeding my body while in the grip of anorexia had basically nothing to do with the nutritional value of it and everything to do with how the calories would add up and fit into my daily allowance, which, predictably, got lower and lower as I became more unwell.

We Need Empathy, Compassion And A Focus On Mental Health – Not Calorie Counts On Menus

“What calorie counting doesn’t account for is that the ingredients in most processed foods are addictive and that every time we eat them we are re-setting our addictive pathways and dooming ourselves to cravings,” says Fran.

“The whole premise of the CICO model is that weight gain is our fault and that the food system is blame-free – it is us that are either too greedy or too lazy too to conform to some sort of un-attainable ideal.”

I was gutted when I learned that there were about 400 calories in a salmon fillet, and 250 in a standard avocado. These ‘good’ foods that I’d believed that I, as a good woman doing what good women do and striving for thinness, was allowed to eat had actually screwed me over by amounting to far more calories than I’d normally allow on my plate. I didn’t need to see the calorie count on a menu to know I would never order them in a restaurant again, despite them being dense in nutritional value and also, you know, delicious.

Registered Associate Nutritionist Jemma Joel says, “Labelling the nutrients, instead of calories, in a dish could help people to understand more about the nutrients included. This could help us to mindfully choose a balanced meal when eating out. We should be aiming to get a balance of nutrients in each of our meals.

“For example, pesto chicken on whole-wheat pasta with veggies = pesto (fat), chicken (protein), pasta (carbs), veggies (fibre, vitamins and minerals).

“If you were to focus on the calorie content of this dish, it would be high because fat is higher in calories compared to protein and carbs - but it is still a nutritious dish. Again, it’s balancing out the portion size and focusing on hunger and fullness cues.”

While calorie counting may seem an easy and straightforward option for someone looking to lose weight, the reality is effectively losing and maintaining weight isn’t straightforward and there’s far more to be said of the relationship between our mental health, body image and the number on the scales than Boris’ proposal takes into account. For people who maybe have no prior nutritional knowledge or have never tried to lose weight before, to approach weight loss from a calorie perspective could so easily trigger disordered eating because a numerical measure of what you’re putting into your body would be ‘easy’ to track and thus to obsess over (and that’s not to mention the people who have or are recovering from eating disorders, which is hardly a small minority.)

“Loosely counting calories can help to educate individuals about the calorie density of different foods,” says Jemma. “This doesn’t mean you should steer clear of calorie-dense foods - it just means you should keep an eye on your portion sizes and how often you eat them.”

The image of a woman picking over a salad (dressing on the side) while her date tucks into a burger and chips is so standardised women often already feel guilty about ordering what they fancy while eating out (and let’s not forget, most restaurants already have “low calorie” sections of their menus that lots of us will order from automatically).

Lynn Crilly is the author of author of Hope With Eating Disorders (Hammersmith Books) and mother to a daughter suffering with an eating disorder.

“If a person is consistently confronted with the numbers, it can distort the choices they are making and in turn make them hyper aware of what they are having,” she says. “They may start to feel external and internal pressure to make the lowest calorie choice, which over time could become obsessional and a once relaxed person with a healthy attitude towards food could soon fall into the clutches of disordered eating.”

This is something that resonates with me, because like the binge and purge cycle of Bulimia, restricting calories can seem like a magic fix for losing weight. It’s just maths, right? All you have to do is keep those numbers down, make sure those subtractions at the gym count for some of (if not all) your food consumption and viola – thinness. The fact that I was never underweight never took away from the severity of my mental disorder.

“An ED sufferer faced with calorie content on all the menus in restaurants may find that dealing with the constant numbers will not only exacerbate the anxiety around being able to eat out and socialise (which is challenging in itself for the sufferer) but also that they disconnect because they can become so focused on ensuring that everything they eat fits neatly into their personal allowance of calories for the day.”

We already know we’re ‘supposed’ to be thin and that to achieve this we’re ‘supposed’ to eat very little. We’ve worked hard to accept diversity in our bodies and for those of us recovering from the psychological trauma of ED’s and for whom intuitive eating is a daily battle, calorie counts on menus is likely to, at best, take the enjoyment out of eating out and at worst, trigger old behaviours that could easily become obsessive again.

The pandemic has thrown the health of the population under the spotlight and there’s no denying that rising obesity has been a concern for years. But it’s also stretched our mental health facilities to the limit and with being kind to ourselves currently top of the agenda for many, this measure could cause more harm than good.

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