by Sara Giarnieri, November 24, 2021
The first time I was exposed to a calorie counting app was in high school during the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. A gym teacher required us to download the app, My Fitness Pal, in order for us to complete assignments that involved tracking our food intake and exercise. Even after the end of my senior year, I continued to use the app with the mindset of losing weight. The app did as advertised. It certainly helped me to keep track of how many calories I burned versus how many calories I was absorbing… however, I was not happy. Anytime I went out to eat with a friend, I anxiously searched for the lowest calorie options on the menu. I constantly looked at myself in the mirror to bodycheck. I was trapped. Looking back on this time, I realize how much calorie counting made me feel miserable. Rather than being a healthy tool, it was an obsession. My experience made me ponder: Can fitness apps with calorie counting be harmful to some of its users?
A study conducted by Courtney C. Simpson and Suzanne E. Mazzeo titled “Calorie counting and fitness tracking technology: Associations with eating disorder symptomatology” focused on whether the use of health tracking apps correlated with eating disorder (ED) symptomatology. After conducting the study, it was concluded that their findings “corroborate media reports documenting a relation between calorie tracking technology and ED attitudes, and indicate that monitoring consumption might enhance rigidity and anxiety regarding calorie intake” (Simpson and Mazzeo). This study is showing us that calorie tracking apps have a correlation with behaviors regarding eating disorders (Simpson and Mazzeo). This fact is extremely dangerous because someone who downloads a fitness app with healthy intentions in mind could possibly slip into a harmful situation. It could also be dangerous for those diagnosed with a mental illness like anxiety, since this study has proven that these fitness apps intensify anxiety around calorie counting. This could be potentially triggering.
On a more personal note, an article titled “Hunger Games” by Alice Gregory highlights the obsession that users with fitness apps can develop over calorie counting. According to the article, a woman named Rebecca Gerson felt herself become more strict with what kind of foods she ate because they all “counted” (Gregory). She felt her social, academic, and personal life decline to the point that she received eating disorder treatment (Gregory). Rebecca’s experience gives us some insight on how an obsession with calorie counting may feel, and more importantly how it leads to negative consequences. Calorie counting forces you to look at every food you eat along with its portion size. It may make an individual afraid to touch certain foods, healthy or not, because of the fear of increasing calorie intake. Unfortunately, the fixation on calorie counting can lead to serious consequences that involve eating disorders, both shown by the study and Rebecca’s experience.
Keeping this information in mind, how do we approach this situation surrounding calorie counting apps? One of the most important things to do first is to spread awareness of the potential harm of these apps. We need more academic studies, articles, and journals about them. We need fitness influencers who promote these apps to share statements of discretion; share warnings. The most significant thing is for the apps themselves to have clear and concise warnings for users that want to download the app. A discrete message hidden in terms and conditions will not help the problem. For example, some medications have black box warning labels to indicate serious, adverse side effects the medication could cause. Fitness apps should do the same, as they are tools that can deeply change a person’s life. Like medication, it does not work for everyone.
Another way to approach this issue is to promote body positivity. Users should be encouraged to stay active and nourish themselves with nutrients, but there shouldn’t be a pressure to look a certain way. These apps are for health, not to change our genetic code. We all have different body types, and that is okay. There are many influences outside the app that must be changed in order to encourage body positivity. It will take a long time for such a culturally ingrained thing to change. However, we must start to break the cycle.
There is certainly a lot to be done in order to prevent the harmful consequences of calorie tracking apps to continue. Becoming more mindful of these consequences can help us as a whole to combat them.
Eating Disorder Hotline & Treatment Information: https://www.nationaleatingdisorders.org/help-support/contact-helpline
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline Information: https://suicidepreventionlifeline.org/
Gregory, Alice. “Hunger Games: Is our tech obsession making anorexia worse?” New Republic, vol. 245, no. 1, 18 Dec. 2013, pp. 7–9. Retrieved from newrepublic.com/article/115969/smartphones-and-weight-loss-how-apps-can-make-eating-disorders-worse.
Simpson, Courtney C., and Suzanne E. Mazzeo. “Calorie Counting and Fitness Tracking Technology: Associations with Eating Disorder Symptomatology.” Eating Behaviors, vol. 26, Aug. 2017, pp. 89–92. doi:10.1016/j.eatbeh.2017.02.002.