I first learned what a calorie was before I started nursery school. Not a unit of energy, not something we need to keep us alive, but something to evade, something dangerous that hid in food and was to be avoided at all costs. I grew up with a fridge full of fat-free yogurts that my mum would eat whilst my dad made fun of her, saying that the fat had been replaced with sugar and chemicals and this was far more harmful than fat.
“It’s less calories though,” my mum would say, as she ate her yoghurt.
This was the message I internalised growing up. Food, nutrition, health, and weight are complicated. But all that really matters is calories. It’s quite simple, really. Eat fewer calories. Then fewer than that.
When I was 12 and in my first year of high school, I stopped eating completely. I was going through a period of intense anxiety and it felt like the world was moving too fast for me. I needed a ‘pause’ button, for everything to slow down; school, friends, family. So I stopped eating and it felt as though time came to a standstill. I was hospitalised and diagnosed with anorexia nervosa within a few months.
That was the start of what would be 20 years of hospitalisations and relapses as I fought against an illness that had taken root inside my brain. For the last few years, I’ve been consistently moving forwards towards something I hesitate to call “recovery” because after such a long time, there’s no previous state of health I am recovering to. I am discovering an entirely new way of thinking and being and taking up space in the world. In practice, this has meant trying new things, meeting new people, and challenging the beliefs I once held to be true – about myself, about the world I live in, and about food.
Eating disorders are a mental illness and we are still a long way from understanding what causes them. It’s thought to be a combination of biological, genetic, environmental, psychological, and social factors. They aren’t caused by a diet going too far, nor by growing up in a household where calorie counting is normal behaviour.
Living in a society that rewards many of the thoughts and behaviours that are part of having an eating disorder is hard to navigate as I try to leave my illness behind. When you walk through the aisles of a typical UK supermarket, you see cauliflower ‘rice’ as a low-calorie alternative to real rice, crackers labelled as “guilt-free” (the implication being that you should feel guilty if you buy a different kind of cracker), yoghurts with added fibre to keep you fuller for longer because hunger, we’re told, is something to be controlled and managed, rather than listened to and honoured.
In 2018, a top health official announced that ‘Britain needs to go on a diet’. Snacks, he said, should contain no more than 100 calories. The latest initiative is that menus will now list calorie counts on them.
For a long time, I only ate in restaurants that could provide me with calorie counts for the food I was going to eat. I needed reassurance that I wasn’t eating more than I was allowing myself to eat. I had to plan for meals out so that I could have an evening of “normality”, trying to relax with family or friends. I never was able to relax though because I was always too anxious about eating something I hadn’t made myself, something out of my everyday routine.
What I had to learn through giving up my eating disorder was that the safety I was seeking through controlling my food intake was never going to be found. I used counting calories meticulously and micromanaging my weight to make me feel safe but deep down, I constantly felt trapped and anxious. I craved freedom and spontaneity. I yearned for stability and security but my ways of seeking that left me feeling like I was always just one step away from tumbling down a cliff edge.
For people with eating disorders, calorie counting can become an all-consuming obsession. It took over my life for over 20 years. I looked at food labels and chose what to eat based on numbers. I still do sometimes. If the information is in front of me, I can’t help it. The calorie content will override anything else. It’s a deeply ingrained way of looking at food that takes a long time to change. I don’t think about what I like to eat, or don’t like, or what I feel like eating; if there are numbers on a label or a menu, I get tunnel vision and any other information fades away. All that matters is how many calories are in what I am eating, and fewer is always better.
Breaking free from my anorexia has been all about creating a life that’s worth living. A life that involves taking risks, learning to trust myself, seeing what happens when I break the rigid rules I have adhered to for so long. A life that one day I’ll look back on and say that it was memories I counted, not calories.