Experiential Calories

When it comes to edible calories, I'm pretty much an expert. I can eyeball and guess the calories in pretty much anything, and those numbers seem to stick in my mind for the rest of eternity. Need to know the calories in a stalk of celery or a cucumber? I'm your girl.

A large part of my eating disorder was limiting the number of calories I ate (or at least balancing that with how much I exercised). Life became a series of numbers: calories, fat grams, pounds, minutes exercised. And the more I could limit the first three of those numbers, the better I tended to feel. Though my diet was rather bland and boring, I enjoyed how it "tasted" of control and strength and willpower. I enjoyed how soothing it was to know exactly what I was going to eat and when.

Calories. The fewer, the better. That was my life for the past decade in about five words.

It was relieving, in a sense, to be told what to eat. Either the anorexia was telling me what to eat, or it was my dietitian. Deciding (remember The Paradox of Choice?) was often freakishly difficult, and I still rely on rules and regulations to help me meet my dietary needs. Often I fantasize about someone giving me The Perfect Food Plan that tells me exactly what to eat and when.

But I was reading the 360 Degrees of Mindful Living blog, and the author, Pavel Somov, wrote about Experiential Calories:

A Nutritional Calorie is a unit of energy. The job of a Nutritional Calorie is to fuel your Body. An Experiential Calorie – to coin a term — is a unit of awareness, a unit of conscious presence, a unit of meaning. The job of an Experiential Calorie is to enrich your Mind.

Of course, the chief thing I restricted in the course of my eating disorder was food. I'm not trying to deny that. But throughout my eating disorder, "restricting" became more than just a way of eating, it became a way of life. I restricted money but not letting myself buy things (or panicking when I did). I restricted social experiences by isolating myself. I restricted fun by always making myself work or do something "useful."

The very first therapist I saw, just as the ED was taking hold and a good 6 months before I had a clue that my increasing food obsessions were in any way problematic, assigned me 30 minutes of "fun" each day. I told her I was too busy for fun, fun was for sissies, I'm already living on 4 hours of sleep- how am I going to manage on three-and-a-half?, I had no use for fun. No, she told me, 30 minutes of fun, every day. Fine, I said, I'll do my fun but you can't make me enjoy it!

Not surprisingly, the thought of spending thirty! whole! minutes! doing! nothing! caused so much anxiety that I never really did it. I never realized this restriction-of-fun had anything to do with my eating disorder. And I never realized how hard it would be for me to begin incorporating other sorts of "calories" in my life.

I've never especially had a problem fueling my brain with Intellectual Calories. I'm a geek. If my brain doesn't get enough Intellectual Calories, it seems that restricting my food calories can't be far behind. But things like Social Calories and Fun Calories and Soothing Calories? They seem somehow bizarre and unnecessary- much like food does when I'm in the throes of anorexia. Yet they very much are necessary (yes, Carrie, just like food!), even though they remain absurdly nebulous.

I think these Experiential Calories are a bit more neglected in eating disorder recovery, in part because it is hard to measure them precisely. But at this past year's NEDA conference, Nancy Zucker spoke of how, even well into recovery, many of her patients' lives seem somewhat rigid or restricted somehow, as if the AN mindset has permeated their lives in every respect, not just food. Obviously, correcting the intake of food calories needs to come first, because a deficit of food calories is immediately life threatening. Experiential calories can wait a bit, if for no other reason than a malnourished person can't take in experiential calories very well. But me and others with EDs need to learn how to regulate both food and experiential calories in our lives.

Guidelines on how many food calories we should eat each day permeate our culture. They're not always right for everyone, but they're there. These Experiential Calories of which I write tend to vary even more between person to person. Whether the Faceless Internet Nutrition Providers will take a hint from the Experiential Calorie folks remains to be seen, but I would love nothing more than a set of rules or guidelines to tell me how much socializing I need to do and how much "fun" I need to have.

I guess this means I need to increase my intake of Flexibility Calories, eh?

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Micco said...

I really, really admire your candor. The way you mix personal experiences with outside material - science, pop culture, self-help, whatever - works so fluidly. Your blog is always insightful, inspirational, and intellectual - which is a tough balance to strike. I really enjoy reading it.

(I felt compelled to say this just because of how much this particular post resonated, but I don't have anything specific to say about its content.)

Kim said...

GREAT post! This hit me at a very appropriate time, as I feel like I've learned how to get food calories (though I still have rigidity), but the experiential calories are still sort of missing.

Like you, I have a hard time with "fun." It feels odd to even write that. My husband doesn't get it. He thinks that life is about having fun. This makes absolutely zero sense to me. Ha. What's hardest for me is to see how the anorexia mindset has way surpassed just food. At this point, I wish it was just food-based. But, no, it affects how I socialize, the money I spend, the experiences I have. Being restrictive is a very depressing way to live. But, living "freely" -- without rules to follow -- seems too scary. So, here I am.

By the way, I've also fantasized about someone giving me The Perfect Food Plan. It makes me sad that I can't come up with such a thing myself (and trust it), or -- gasp -- not need "a plan" at all. I often wonder what's realistic in recovery. I still feel very plan-y and that seems to inhibit some of my enjoyment of life. In other words, focus on the food calories (even if I'm getting enough of them) limits my experiential calories.

Cathy (UK) said...

I can identify with everything you've written here Carrie.... In the past I didn't just count calories to be eaten and calories consumed, but every gram of fat, protein, carbohydrate - as well as different types of fat and various micronutrients. As a teen I made paper lists; as an adult I created spreadsheets in Excel.

Something that started out as means of controlling anxiety morphed into a obsessive interest. And, as you highlight, the world of anorexia doesn't just involve food regulation, but regulation of anything and everything. My life was planned out in a timetable; not just my diet and exercise regime. Without this 'lifeplan' I felt depserately out of control and the world felt like too chaotic a place.

I agree that living in a world of self-created (often ascetic) rules doesn't necessarily change after weight gain. However, my life was a list of rules pre-anorexia. I cannot live spontaneously and without rules and rituals, however hard I try. It feels safe and comfortingly predictable.

Amy said...

Lady, we are going to have a bonanza of experiential and fun calories. It'll be epic.

Abby said...

I loved this post and feel like I could have written it myself. I think that part of the reason inpatient treatment is often such a relief for people is that they are allowed to NOT make decisions, instead being told what to eat, when to eat, etc. and trusting that it's what they need.

And it's so true about restriction with everything else. Even though I have "enough" money, I still don't splurge with stuff, "just in case." I always find it easier to restrict fun and flexibility, as it's more comfortable and gives me room..."just in case," once again.

Anyway, great post. I felt every. single. word.

Unknown said...

I dare say this is a message for all of us. Too many of us measure our accomplishments in disordered ways and need to check in on our experiential calories! I'm putting it on my calendar right now!

Carrie Arnold said...


When you get to the 757, it *will* be EPIC. I'm still plotting- I need to find out how accessible my idea is...

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I'm a science writer, a jewelry design artist, a bookworm, a complete geek, and mom to a wonderful kitty. I am also recovering from a decade-plus battle with anorexia nervosa. I believe that complete recovery is possible, and that the first step along that path is full nutrition.

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nour·ish: (v); to sustain with food or nutriment; supply with what is necessary for life, health, and growth; to cherish, foster, keep alive; to strengthen, build up, or promote


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