Navigating Menu Calorie Counts in ED Recovery

A couple weeks ago, my partner was going through the mail and found my journal from the Academy of Nutrition & Dietetics (that usually goes straight into the recycle bin because hi, it's 2018 and if I want to find a research article, I'll just look online). He started flipping through and was reading bits and pieces and started reading one particular study about calorie counts being listed on menu items (spoiler alert: calorie labels didn't change health outcomes in any significant way).


With the new calorie labeling law going into effect earlier this month, I've had a lot conversations about this with my clients recently. If you're in the US, you've probably noticed that all restaurants (with 20+ locations) are now required to list calorie counts on their food items. As both a clinician and a consumer, I have a lot of issues with this. In fact, the original draft of this post was almost double the length because I wrote about these issues in great detail. But because I don't want to make you read a short novel, they've been scrapped (for now) and will re-emerge in a likely part two soon. What I want to address here is how challenging it can be to see calorie labels when you're recovery from an eating disorder. Because when your treatment team is emphasizing calories don't matter and then you walk into a restaurant where every item has a calorie count, it is confusing to say the least.

I totally understand how difficult it can be to be in recovery from an eating disorder and be faced with this information every time you go out for a meal. And the advice I would give to you in a perfect world would be "just order what sounds good!" But I also know that is a lot easier said than done. So here are some tips to remember when you're faced with calorie labels on menus:

1. Take a deep breath. Reminding yourself of some positive affirmations may be helpful  (I am worthy of recovery, I am allowed to listen to my body, I am safe no matter what I order, I am capable of managing this situation, etc). Try to create some space for yourself in that moment.

2. Recognize that these numbers do not have any bearing in your value as a person. They don't have the power to make you good or bad. They can't make you a failure. 

3. Think about what sounds appealing to you. Do you want something hot or cold? Crunchy or soft? Salty or sweet? Are you having any cravings? Use these answers to guide you towards the things that sound good to you in that moment. 

4. Give yourself a time limit. It can be easy to get sucked into a world of complex food math (maybe I should get that salad because it's X calories or I could get 1/2 of that sandwich and a small order of fries and that would be Y calories but if I do that, I can only have Z calories at dinner which throws off my whole day because I had ABC for breakfast and then what about my nighttime snack and on and on and on). To avoid- or at least shorten- that moment of uncertainty and panic, give yourself a time limit to decide what you're going to order. For example, if you're in line at a coffee shop, give yourself 30-60 seconds to decide on a drink and then stick with it when you go to order. If you're out to lunch with a friend, let yourself look at the menu for 3-5 minutes before making a decision and closing your menu. Set an actual timer on your phone if you think it will help. This isn't designed to be stressful, just a way for you to avoid getting sucked into that food math vortex. Give yourself enough time to look at your options and then make a decision without ruminating on it.

5. Order without overthinking. Think about what sounds good, look at the menu for a couple minutes, and then order what sounds appealing and manageable. Remember that not every meal needs to be *perfect*. Remember that you're allowed to eat all foods. And remember that every time you make choices that go against ED rules, you're taking one more step into recovery.

6. Try to stay grounded when your food comes. If you're with out with someone, try to focus on your conversation with them which is likely far more meaningful than nutrition labels. And if you're alone, consider bringing a journal and writing your way through the experience (or if that feels too intense, write about something different altogether). 

Seeing calorie counts can seem unmanageable but remember it is merely external information and that most of recovery is about re-connecting with your body's internal wisdom. In a perfect world, we would be able to clear our internal hard drives of all calorie counts, Weight Watchers point, macros, and all the other things we've memorized because there's no real need to know exactly how many calories are in 24 almonds or how many points are in a banana. This is all just  information that has no meaningful effect on your body; none of these numbers can determine what is most nourishing for you. Reconnecting with your body's needs and listening to your intuition is infinitely healthier than making frantic decisions based on what are essentially arbitrary numbers.

The goal I have for my clients (and anyone in ED recovery) is to be able to see calorie labels as neutral information.  The nutrition information that you once had memorized as well as the lyrics to your favorite song doesn't just fade away- although take comfort in the fact that as the distance between you and calorie counting grows, these numbers will start to blur and eventually pieces fade away altogether. What you are able to do is start working towards a place where this information doesn't have so much power over you. You're able to move to a place where knowing calorie information is like knowing exactly how many gigahertz the wifi is or the exact temperature of your refrigerator- both fine to know but probably not going to impact your life in any significant way. When we start placing less importance on external information and create more body trust, we're able to make decisions that nourish our minds and our bodies without guilt- and that is the ultimate goal in recovery.

Cover photo by Benjamin Zanatta