Proud2Bme | Dear KJ: Can I Recover Without Obsessing Over Calories?

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Dear KJ: Can I Recover Without Obsessing Over Calories?

"Dear KJ" is a weekly advice column by Dr. Kjerstin "KJ" Gruys, sociologist, author and body image activist.  She holds a Ph.D. in sociology with a focus on the politics of appearance and is the author of Mirror Mirror Off the Wall: How I Learned to Love My Body By Not Looking at It for a Year (Avery Press, 2012). Her work and writing have been featured by Good Morning America, 20/20The Colbert Report, USA Today, People, New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, NPR's "Tell Me More," and "On Air with Ryan Seacrest," among others. Find her at

How can I monitor my food intake in recovery without becoming obsessive?

Last week was National Eating Disorders Awareness Week (#NEDAwareness), the largest education and outreach effort on eating disorders in the United States. As someone who recovered from an eating disorder, that week always swells my heart with emotion, and I take it pretty seriously; I could have used this kind of enthusiastic advocacy, information and support in high school, maybe earlier.

In response to your question about how to monitor your food intake during recovery without becoming obsessive, I’ll share the advice that helped me the most when I was in recovery. The year was 2002 and I was in my first month of "Intensive Outpatient Therapy" at an eating disorders clinic near my college. I had just finished a group session of "calming" yoga (which was far from calming since the room was filled with palpably anxious young women, at least 1/3 of whom were quietly crying in child's pose while another 1/3 were trying to stealthily burn extra calories by adding almost-imperceptible callisthenic moves into our sun salutations. I was one of the criers). After the “corpse pose” grand finale we were all shuffled into our next therapy activity for a lesson on "normal eating."  

Normal eating? What the hell is that? I remember thinking. Okay, give me the "normal eating diet" and I'll follow it, I thought. I was good at diets. But normal eating wasn't a diet. It also wasn't a list of foods, or "points," or food groups, or even levels of satiety that needed to be magically monitored "intuitively." Instead, it was this:

What is Normal Eating? by Ellyn Satter

Normal eating is going to the table hungry and eating until you are satisfied.

It is being able to choose food you like and eat it and truly get enough of itnot just stop eating because you think you should.

Normal eating is being able to give some thought to your food selection so you get nutritious food, but not being so wary and restrictive that you miss out on enjoyable food.

Normal eating is giving yourself permission to eat sometimes because you are happy, sad or bored, or just because it feels good.

Normal eating is mostly three meals a day, or four or five, or it can be choosing to munch along the way.

It is leaving some cookies on the plate because you know you can have some again tomorrow, or it is eating more now because they taste so wonderful.

Normal eating is overeating at times, feeling stuffed and uncomfortable.

And it can be undereating at times and wishing you had more.

Normal eating is trusting your body to make up for your mistakes in eating.

Normal eating takes up some of your time and attention, but keeps its place as only one important area of your life.

In short, normal eating is flexible. It varies in response to your hunger, your schedule, your proximity to food and your feelings.

I've never been able to successfully eat "intuitively,” at least by the way I’d defined it, but I forgave myself for this after learning that normal eating does take some "time and attention" and that emotional eating isn't always disordered (indeed, mindful eating is all about pleasure and being in tune with your body!). The key thing here is to replace the concept of “monitoring” with the concept of “mindfulness.” Expect some trial and error before finding the right mix of practices that help you “give some thought to your food selection so you get nutritious food, but not being so wary and restrictive that you miss out on enjoyable food.”

In my case, I give myself permission to get a little obsessive at the grocery store if I feel the urge to read labels, etc., but to balance this out I commit to trying a new food every time I shop (so I don’t get repetitive with “safety foods”) and I also commit to trusting my body to tell me what it needs once I’m at home. Your version of this will look different from mine, but once you find the right balance, you’ll know. Good luck!

Have questions for Dr. KJ? Post them in the comments below!


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