I’ve written about this before, but it’s so important that I decided that it is time for a refresher. It’s important because if you are following the recommended daily allowance of calories, or advice you’ve read on the internet, or used a calorie calculator to try and work out how much your body needs, then you are almost certainly not getting enough energy for your body.
So we all know that currently the RDA is 2000 calories for women, and 2500 for men, but what most people don’t know is that number is too low. Especially if you are under 25. For people in recovery from restrictive eating disorders, it’s wayyyyyy too low. Under-eating is damaging to our bodies and to our minds. People who do not diet and eat by listening to their hunger and fullness cues do not eat the RDA when it comes to calorie intake.
So let me tell you a story.
In 2009 the calorie guidelines were reconsidered when a study found that energy requirements had been underestimated by 16% (around 400cals). What is telling is how the guidelines weren’t changed to accommodate these new findings. On the NHS website is written
“This news does not mean that everyone can, or should, now eat an extra cheeseburger or its equivalent in calories a day. The advisory committee makes it clear that the revised energy intake recommendations do not mean that people should increase the amount they eat and that, if people do eat more, they will need to do more exercise to avoid being overweight or obese.”
What we have here is science telling us that the current calorie guidelines underestimate the energy REQUIREMENTS, yet we are being told by our medical community and our government to not eat the amount that our bodies need. Regardless of the fact that studies found that we need more energy, the government put this on its website in 2017:
“The new campaign, due to launch in the spring of 2018, aims to help people be more aware of and reduce how many calories they consume from the 3 main meals of the day, in particular when eating on the go. There will be a simple rule of thumb to help them do this: 400:600:600 – people should aim for 400 calories from breakfast and 600 each from lunch and dinner.”
There the government are advising 1600 calories as a rule of thumb, and cited obesity as the reason for this. “As we are the sixth most overweight nation on the planet, we believe it is a sensible thing to do.” A sensible thing to do? To deny scientific findings, which have, by the way, repeatedly shown that the calorie guidelines are inadequate? To me that sounds like irrational fatphobia, and a complete misunderstanding about health, which is a pretty scary thought since this information comes from the government itself, not to mention our health physicians. It shows very clearly how our entire society including the medical community and our government is indoctrinated in diet culture and fatphobia, so much so that they will dismiss actual science in favour of advising that people restrict to stay thin. Even when this is unhealthy. Even when it harms us. How can we accept this?
So what do we do about providing our bodies with enough energy? As stated above, evidence shows that adult women need around 2400 calories and adult men 2900 calories. This is extremely similar to the calorie guidelines shown on The ED Institute website run by Gwyneth Olwyn, who developed the Homeodynamic Recovery Method (formerly known as the MinneMaud Guidelines). Olwyn has always promoted 3000 calories for men over 25 and 2500 calories for women over 25. Under 25 the recommendations are 3500 and 3000 calories respectively, due to the fact that our bodies continue to grow and develop until around that age. Those who exercise or have children need more energy to cover this. On her website you can read an extremely detailed blog post on why the government approved calories guidelines are entirely inadequate, with far more scientific evidence than this simple refresher.
In remission you will have learnt how to listen and respond to hunger and fullness cues and your body will give you signals in order for you to provide it with the right amount of energy, without counting calories. Until then, it is advised that you keep track of calories in order to ensure that you are getting enough energy for your body (I wrote an entire post on this here). I urge you with all my heart to take note of the science, and take care of your body accordingly. Nourish your body. Respect it. Listen to it. Provide it with what it needs.
On that note, it is also totally normal for someone in recovery from a restrictive eating disorder to eat far more than the calorie guidelines. This has been coined “extreme hunger” in restrictive eating disorder recovery. Extreme hunger is where you are eating above and beyond the calorie guidelines by quite a bit (e.g. over 4,000 calories). Eating between your guidelines and 4,000 calories is additional hunger but not classed as “extreme”, however the following explanation also applies. The reason you might find yourself eating an extreme amount of calories is because your body has acquired significant damages during your restriction and engagement with disordered and harmful behaviours. Your body needs energy for the day (actual daily guideline amounts – NOT the inaccurate government approved guidelines) but it also needs energy on top of that in order to heal the internal damage done to your body. Some people need more, and some people need less. Some people will find their bodies are calling for a more extreme amount for a shorter period, and some people may find that their bodies are calling for a less extreme amount but over a shorter period. This is something that will taper down in time to settle more around the guidelines, but whilst your body is damaged, it often will need more, and whilst it can be terrifying, it is normal. I always compare it to when burns victims are in hospital and put on a high-calorie diet in order to give the body enough energy to heal the damaged skin and flesh. It is a similar concept in that your body will need more energy on top of daily energy expenditure to restore itself to good health internally. You can read several of my blog posts about extreme hunger that include much more detail here and here. also I have my very own YouTube video on the subject, which you can watch here.
It is a sad, and frankly terrifying fact that we can not always trust our own government or medical communities to ensure our good health. It is frightening how diet culture and fatphobia are so prevalent in every single area of our society, so much so that we can’t even escape it even when we turn to those whose responsibility is to provide us with accurate information in order for us to be as healthy as possible. What we must do is look for ourselves. Research for ourselves. Critical review the information that is given to us, and then take care of ourselves, and if we can, take care of others by enabling the science to be available to others. And most of all, heal the relationship between ourselves and our bodies, and then listen to them – our bodies have the most reliable information on how much we need to eat, and they share that information with us via hunger and fullness cues. Listen.
You can read my original and more detailed blog post on why we need more calories here.
It’s January, and we all know what that means: a total inundation of diet talk. It’s EVERYWHERE. TV advertising is filled with diet promotions, “healthy” eating, exercise equipment, gym memberships, and low fat yogurts (although hell, when do those NOT appear in the ad breaks?!). Friends, family, and colleagues are on a mission to lose weight, tone up, or get super heallllltthhyyyyyyy (god, pleeeeeease make it stop). “Lifestyle changes” are being broadcast from the rooftops (it’s still a diet, Susan, don’t kid yourself). It’s really difficult trying to deal with all this talk when you are trying to recover from an eating disorder or dieting, and/or are on a journey towards body acceptance. It can be downright triggering. So here are some tips on how to deal with the diet culture disaster that is January:
1. Set boundaries
I know that this can be really tough for a lot of people, but it is so important. If someone is talking to you about their diet/lifestyle change/new workout routine/how many pounds they’ve lost since only eating lettuce for the past two weeks, or god forbid are trying to offer you “advice”, tell them that it is making you uncomfortable. Hell, tell them that it downright harms you when you are trying so hard to explore a different path. Let them know that diet and exercise talk is not appropriate or helpful for you and that you would appreciate if you engaged in conversation about other topics instead. If they are commenting on your own body or eating habits, let them know it’s entirely not their business.
2. Use facts as a weapon against disordered thoughts
When you are feeling the insidious pull of temptation leading you towards to some sort of restriction, consider the facts:
* Diets don’t work. 95-97% of people who lose weight on diets regain the weight within 2-5 years (if not sooner). They also often end up gaining more weight due to the body trying to protect itself against “famine”.
* Chronic restriction can push people’s set points (their natural, healthy weight that is individual to each person) higher, because the body becomes damaged by getting less energy that it need, and can alter its set point in order to protect itself from harm.
* The metabolism slows as a response to not getting enough energy, and this makes it harder and harder to lose weight – which if you have an eating disorder or have ever been on a diet, you know already. Leptin levels also drop when our fat levels decrease. Leptin is a hormone produced by the fat cells in our bodies. It exists in the body in proportionate amounts to our weight. Our bodies want to compensate for this loss in leptin and respond by increasing hunger urges, which makes not eating enough super unpleasant – as you know already. Your body does not want to lose weight, and it is going to fight to keep it at its set point.
* Studies show that weight cycling (losing/gaining/losing/gaining) is much more unhealthy than just staying at a higher weight. It increases the risk of developing major illnesses such as cardiovascular disease.
* Restricting often leads to binging, and that’s a signal from your body that you are not getting enough energy on a regular basis. Binging also leads to emotions that are really not fun to experience, and can lead to even more unhealthy behaviours as compensation. Restriction also leads to obsessing over food, and that means less time for doing things that are important, productive, and enjoyable. In addition, restriction leads to increased cravings – again, not fun to feel, and again, often leads to binging.
* Any type of restriction is a slippery slope. It could easily turn into a full-blown relapse. Don’t risk it.
* Losing weight won’t make you happier. It won’t. We’ve all been there before, ladies and gentlemen. Who’s life was super awesome with an eating disorder/chronic dieting? I’m betting no one at all.
* Did I mention diets don’t work?
3. Unfollow or mute people on social media who are triggering you
This is advice for anytime of the year, but if people are going on about losing weight, cutting out certain foods, restricting their intake, or exercising then unfollow them. If anyone is making you feel bad about yourself, triggered, or is causing you to compare yourself to them, then unfollow them. If they are a friend or family member that you want to keep on your social media, you can mute their posts, or you can let the know that their posts are negatively impacting on your wellbeing (see tip number 1).
4. Fill your social media feeds with body positive and food positive people
This has helped me so much in the past few years, and is definitely one of the things that gives me ongoing support and a sense of community, hope, and positivity. Start following people who are body positive. Start following people who love food and have a healthy relationship with it. Start following people who are fat, trans, disabled, of other races than your own, etc. Fill your feed with people who are diverse. Fill your feed with people who look like YOU, and people who don’t. Just stop filling it with thin white women (or if you are a guy, muscly white men). Stop looking at people who you want to look like or be like, just because our diet culture told you that’s who you should look like or be like, and start looking at people who celebrate who they are. Start celebrating who you are.
5. Write down reminders of why you made the choice to try something other than dieting/restricting
I know that it sucks to hear the constant chatter about diets, weightloss, exercise, and the body-shaming that comes with it, but you know it’s all for nothing. You know that diets don’t work. You know that it is extremely bad for your physical and mental health. You know it won’t improve your life, or make you happier. Remember remember remember. Grit your teeth, and do your best. You can do this.
It happens to us all at some point in our journey from sickness to health: we hear a comment, see a magazine article, or wake up with rose-tinted glasses that throw us back into a tirade of insidious thoughts, ideas, and what if I just‘s.
What if I just exercise more?
What if I just restrict a little bit?
What if I lose just ten pounds?
What if I just cut out xyz?
What if I just…?
And of course: I’d feel so much better if I was thinner.
The answer is you won’t. You’ll feel worse. You will always feel worse.
Engaging in eating disordered habits will mean spiralling down right back into the hellish Pit of Misery. You can convince yourself that you won’t end up there, but you will. And even if you don’t, engaging in any kind of eating disordered habits isn’t exactly taking a vacation to Disney World. It’s dark and dangerous, and it is joyless.
Here are some things to think about when you can feel the pull of a relapse:
Ask yourself this: what did your eating disorder give you? How did you benefit from it? Okay, I know it made you thin, but what did you actually gain from being thin? Did it give you stable, healthy relationships with friends, family, and romantic partners? Did it find you a fulfilling job? Did it buy you a nice home? Did it contribute towards your education? Did it make you feel better about yourself? Did it bring you happiness? I imagine the answer is no. Eating disorders help us feel in control (which is only an illusion), but beyond that, they don’t give us anything real.
Think about your own personal reasons for recovery. Write them down and think about them. Is it worth abandoning those goals for the sake of losing weight? Your reasons might include the things mentioned in number 1. They might also include decreased anxiety, trips out with friends, being present in your day to day experiences, keeping your body healthy in order to have children, being involved in your hobbies and passions, being able to enjoy social events, being able to enjoy food, improved sleep, having time to do the things you want to do, dedicating your energy towards enjoying life, being productive and fulfilled by doing things that matter to you and are important, physically feeling a million times better, and regaining your identity.
Use your support network. Friends, family, partners, doctors, therapists, helplines, online support forums – USE THEM! They are there to help you and are often crucial in remaining strong and continuing on in your journey. You may feel ashamed or like you have failed, but that isn’t the case – we all slip backwards at one point or another. It’s all part of the journey. Don’t suffer in silence: seek support.
Eliminate negative influences. Get rid of those triggering gossip/women’s magazines that spout diet culture bullshit. Unfollow those accounts on social media that make you feel like you are doing recovery wrong. Stop looking at that vegan paleo raw blogger who survives off smashed avocado and vegetable juice and works out 7 days a week because it makes her SO HAPPPPPPY (it doesn’t). Follow people who are crushing their eating disorder, eating fear foods, and resting. Follow people who are body positive and food positive. Follow people don’t set rules for what health looks like – because it is different for everyone. Cut toxic people out of your life. Assert your boundaries with your loved ones who comment on your body/food choices/lifestyle/exercise habits or who won’t stop talking about the diet that they are on. Motivate yourself to move forwards by using the positive influence of those who truly push you onward.
If you find yourself missing food here and there, make yourself a schedule. Ensure you eat regularly and consistently. If you find yourself making excuses not to eat, then you may just have to put yourself on a more rigid plan until you are able to go back to eating intuitively. Three meals, three snacks. Adequate amounts, and no excuses not to eat them.
Know your warning signs! If you find you are:
– Finding reasons not to eat/avoiding situations involving food
– Increasing your exercise
– Weighing yourself again/more regularly
– Worrying about food/weight/exercise
– Changing the way you dress/hiding your body
– Body checking/spending time scrutinising your body in the mirror
– Cutting out certain foods or thinking about cutting out certain foods
– Desiring control
– Hiding disordered behaviour from others
– Feeling like you NEED to change how your body looks
– Feeling guilt after eating/resting
then any of these could mean that you are approaching a relapse or in a relapse. If you know what your own warning signs are, and are able to recognise if you find yourself doing/thinking those things, then you will be able to address and resolve the problem a lot quicker. This will enable you to bring yourself out of a relapse/prevent a relapse before it snowballs into something more ingrained. It may also be a good idea to tell your partner, friends, and family what these red flags are so that if you are unable to see them in yourself when they happen, they can point them out and support you in getting back on track.
Remember that recovery isn’t linear, and every setback is an opportunity to learn and take bigger steps forwards. Some of my most important lessons learnt were during the slip ups that I made during my recovery. Pick yourself up, dust yourself off, and don’t let the tide sweep you up and carry you back. Keep wading upstream, and take the knowledge with you for next time.
Keep busy and use distraction techniques. This list is not exclusive but here are some ideas of what to do when you are sitting with anxiety/guilt/relapse temptations:
– Watch a movie
– Read a book
– Paint or draw
– Knit or sew
– Research something you are interested in
– Play XBOX
– Play games on your phone
– Do fun internet quizzes
– Play computer games
– Call a friend or family member
– Meet up with someone
– Watch a documentary
– Play a musical instrument
– Do homework
– Tidy your room
– Do some internet shopping
– Take photographs
– Do puzzles
Write these tips down. Save this article to your bookmarks if it helps. Make a reasons to recover/reasons not to relapse poster or screensaver. Watch my YouTube video on that topic here. Remind yourself how strong and brave and beautiful you are. You’re gonna be okay. You’re gonna make it through. Keep on trekking on, and you can and WILL beat your eating disorder.