1000 calories a day.
That was my first diet. I was twelve. My mother had a book (my Bible!) that listed the calories of every food. It was a fat paperback, dog-eared and coffee stained, a staple on our kitchen table like salt. If someone handed me that book today, covered with my ballpoint pen markings and fingerprints, I’d cry. Then I’d throw it at the wall.
800 calories a day.
That was my second diet. Because 1000 was too much.
500 calories a day.
That was the diet my ballet teacher suggested when I was fourteen and 100 pounds. I can still see the red needle on my bathroom scale refusing to drop down into double-digits, mocking me and my hunger and my calorie counting.
This is what my class notes looked like in all of my 9th grade subjects:
Jello Pudding Pop: 90
Jello Pudding Pop: 90
Often on these lists, I’d draw a squiiggly line. That was my code for binge/purge. Hundreds of calories added and subtracted at the same time – too many to count. It shocks me now that in the midst of my madness, I marked it down, that I hinted at a secret I ardently covered with lies.
I had another calorie counting book. The title was something like: 100 Calories of Every Food. I just searched it on Amazon and the one I had isn’t there. But there’s a new one – The 100 Calorie Diet. When I saw it, I gagged. My book broke down every food into 100 calorie portions: ¼ McDonald’s Shake=100. As if I could stop at ¼.
Now there are foods on supermarket shelves that brag: 100 calories! Sold in the lunch-snack aisle – for kids – popcorn and cookies. Sometimes my kids toss them in the cart. If I point it out, will I create an issue where there wasn’t one? When it comes to passing on my eating disorder, I’m terrified I’m doing everything wrong.
The biggest hurdle in my recovery was learning to not see only calories in food. To just eat. It took me over a decade and I still slip up. Once I said out loud when I was served poached eggs at a luncheon: “I love a poached egg – so easy to calculate.” (80!) Only one friend heard me, thank God. “What?” she asked. “Oh nothing,” I said, shooing the old me away.
When I see calories on a menu, it ruins the meal. I’ve already decided to enjoy myself, to eat with pleasure, which I really can do. Cooking for other people was essential in my recovery because I wanted the food to taste good. Preparing a meal is a gift; enjoying it together is, too. When I go out or to a party, I eat what I’m served. If there’s dessert, I eat it. It’s joyous. I’m so thankful I’m free.
I read that calories are on menus now to curb obesity, but that it turns out a lot of American’s believe a high-calorie meal is better, that’s it’s more for their money, so it’s not working the way the FDA had hoped. And it’s not just fast food either. I’ve seen calories on menus at upscale restaurants. I get that there are good intentions behind it, but for us recovering counters – and the budding ones, too – I wish they’d stop. Counting calories can be deadly math.
If you or a loved one is suffering from an eating disorder, contact the National Eating Disorder Association toll free and confidentially at 1-800-931-2237 or go to nationaleatingdisorders.org/find-help-support for help.
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