Counting calories, macros and/or measuring food to make sure it is within your eating disorder's 'allotted' amount for the day are three really common ED compulsions. Like all compulsions, they help us feel a sense of safety or control. We wouldn't do them if they didn't give us something. However, these compulsions keep us over focused on food and stuck in the eating disorder mindset. In order for food to have less control over us, we must work on reducing these compulsions. Calorie counting is a particularly hard one for most people because it starts to feel so automatic and probably just seems to 'happen' with limited awareness. Many of my clients report feeling discouraged by this compulsion because they have already memorized many nutrition labels. I want you to know it is not impossible to let go of this compulsion AND it does take a lot of time and patience. Here are some of my top tips for reducing (and eventually eliminating) this compulsion.
A good first step in reducing calorie counting is taking away the things that make this process easier. For example, it’s going to be much harder to commit to stop counting if you still wear an apple watch or other type of fitness tracker. Similarly, the urge will be harder to fight when MyFitnessPal is still on your phone sending you notifications. It’s sort of like taking tequila shots in front of someone recovering from alcoholism. Removing the triggers lessens the likelihood you’ll act on the urge. Even if you still count in your head, eliminating the ability to record them digitally will for sure build more awareness of just how much you turn to tracking. Awareness is a key part of ending any behavior.
Now I know what you are saying, “But I have memorized every calorie content for most of the foods I eat!” This part is tricky and takes time to unlearn. I used to struggle with this too. What helped was committing to shift my attention elsewhere when the counting started. You can start this by building awareness of when you are most likely to count calories. For example, most of my clients report counting before or after meals, or at the end of the day. You can keep of log of when it is happening, and over time you will see your most vulnerable times. This awareness will help you shift your attention. When you become aware, it starts to be less automatic, and you can choose to shift your attention back to the present moment instead of being in your head counting. Practice saying “I hear you ED, and I am going to focus my attention on this book right now. I don’t need to figure this out.” Basically, you want to start acting AS IF the calorie counting is irrelevant. Show your ED it doesn’t have that much meaning, and over time it does slowly fade into the background.
Ask your parents, partner, roommate or friend to cover up calorie counts on food items in the pantry. You can do this by getting a sharpie and coloring over it, or cutting it out completely with scissors. You can place snacks in containers instead of keeping them in their original packaging. This is also an example of removing the trigger.
Focus on buying new foods that you don’t already know that calorie counts of, and repeat step 3.
Explore the function of why you count- is it because you had allotted yourself a set amount to avoid the fear of weight gain? Is it because you are trying to lose weight? Well, I hate to break it to you but bodies maintain weight that is genetically predetermined for us regardless of when our intake fluctuates. This set point range is a 10-15 lb range, so while you may lose weight at first, there will be a point when your body fights back to keep you in this range. When this happens, your metabolism slows and your set point rises. This is why so many diets fail and why 95% of people regain the weight they lost after 3-5 years. Further, your body’s weight is so much more than calories in, calories out. Your hypothalamus (located in your brain) and your metabolic functioning, as well as your genetically predetermined set point weight–all control your weight more than calories do. We really don’t have as much control as we think we do, especially in the long term. When you debunk these diet culture myths with true weight science, you’ll see that calorie counting is really useless and your eating disorder lies! See below for more info on further reading on this topic.
Explore underlying needs for calorie counting. Some people report anxiety reduction, some people report it gives them permission to eat. Whatever it is that calorie counting does for you, try to meet that underlying need instead. If it’s anxiety, can you practice meditation, yoga, sitting in nature, journaling or reaching out to a friend instead? If it’s permission to eat, can you practice asking yourself: Am I hungry? Is it time to eat based on my meal plan? Am I craving a certain taste? Has it been over 3 hours since I last ate (when blood sugar levels typically decline)? Am I wanting something for nostalgia or just because? These are all perfectly good reasons to eat- you know your body better than an arbitrary calorie tracker.
Be patient and give yourself compassion. It is really hard to let go of this eating disorder compulsion and it certainly does not happen overnight. It can take years for it to completely fade, but it totally does. In the meantime, practice these skills and give yourself so much compassion. You are doing an incredibly hard thing and it can feel like you are disobeying your ED. Just know that when you disobey your ED, you are saying ‘YES’ to a full and meaningful life. You deserve that.
If you or a loved one want help with this, please do not hesitate to reach out to my practice. Most people find it incredibly hard to do this work alone. I am ending you so much strength!