Could Fitness Tracking Apps and Devices Be Leading to Disordered Eating? Research Says so…
As a fitness aficionado, I set quite a score by my fitness watch. It tracked my burned calories, my steps, my heartrate, and my workouts. It permitted me to run marathons without having to lug my phone along to keep tabs on my pace and see how many miles I had run. It perked me up with motivators when I hit my move goal. It told me to get up after I had given in to lethargy and been idle for more than an hour at a time.
Similarly, I had literally been tapping in [to MyFitnessPal] every day for years. It seems innocuous when you are just starting out, but I can definitely say I got addicted. Every morsel that went into my body also had to be logged into my diary. I would fret over numbers since my Keto diet demanded macro management, I would find myself weighing something as insignificant as a lettuce leaf, I would worry if something I ate sent me over, I would feel wrecked with guilt if I fell behind my calorie goals for the day. Soon I started picking foods that I could input into MyFitnessPal, instead of eating home-cooked meals. Even when I had a binge, a total, utter of control (perhaps nothing more than a full scoop of ice cream), I logged it as best I could… it fueled my warped illusion of control – however, in reality, it was controlling me.
I felt I had to look, eat, train a certain way, since people were watching. I wanted to have a six-pack, be the strongest, leanest, the quickest. I worked hard and did get good at all of those things but as a consequence, I inadvertently fell victim to eating disorders. Within a few months, I was starting to burn more calories than I had eaten. Wrapped up in the complicated brain chemistry of motivation and reward, I would boast with pride when my calorie counter would go negative, or whenever I received a congratulatory message from some app!
In addition to counting calories, I was counting my steps as well, which further aggravated the compulsion to do a minimum number of steps and walk a certain distance each day. If I ever did more one day, it would become my new minimum the following time. Over time, I started getting so distressed because I never had time to do things as I had to get my steps in.
I tapped my progress obsessively – so obsessively, in fact, that my body was trimming off more than was needed. A couple of months down the lane, I started suffering from Panic attacks, mental and physical exhaustion, kidney problems, and migraines. After being hospitalized for days, diagnosed with “Other Specified Feeding or Eating Disorder”, and months of therapy, it dawned on me; What was I doing to my body?
The Link Between Disordered Eating And Fitness Tracking
While apps like MyFitnessPal and fitness tracking devices can come in quite handy for some people, obsessing over calories burned and logging every morsel is nevertheless unhealthy. In fact, Heather Hausenblas, Ph.D., a professor in the department of kinesiology at Jacksonville University in Florida, highlights the importance of raising awareness about the role of fitness and calorie-counting apps in exercise addiction and eating disorders.
“For the most part, these apps do good,” says Hausenblas. “But for certain individuals, the constant checking and the obsession about it becomes really negative. With people who are on the cusp of disordered behaviors, it can push them over the edge.”
A 2017 study analyzing 493 college-age students found (via tracking devices and fitness apps) and disordered eating attitudes. Participants were entailed to note their calorie counts or fitness levels using tracking devices. “Individuals who reported using calorie trackers manifested higher levels of eating concern… Additionally, fitness tracking was uniquely associated with ED symptomatology,” researchers found, concluding that “for some individuals, these devices might do more harm than good.”
A Perverse Game Of Arithmetic
The number of connected wearable devices worldwide, of which health-focused wearables hold a significant portion, just pushed the 74 million threshold in 2019, and is projected to soar up to more than 1 billion by 2022. Even devices that are not inherently famous for their health-focus, such as the Apple or Samsung watch, have in-built exercise tracking, calories burn, and step count. This means that you don’t even have to invest in a wearable or smartwatch to track your fitness regime; data about your body comes at you unsolicited.
Dr Carolyn Plateau, a lecturer in psychology at Loughborough University, has deeply scrutinized the effect of health-focused apps and fitness trackers on regular users. Her most recent study explores the differences in mental wellbeing, disordered exercise, and disordered eating between people who record food intake and calories via these mechanisms and those who don’t. Here’s what she has to say,
“Our findings were interesting as they indicated that those who did track their activity or food intake showed higher levels of both disordered eating and exercise than those who did not. In particular, higher levels of purging behavior (e.g. excessive or driven exercise to control or modify weight or shape) was found among the tracking group.”
Another psychotherapist specializing in eating disorders, Amanda Perl, backs up this study. According to Amanda, excessive exercising, strict dieting, and Calorie counting are synonymous with disordered eating, and fitness trackers and apps can exacerbate these symptoms in people who have had a history of eating disorders, or those too fixated on these things. Even worse, this obsession with goal setting and health-focused metrics throws balance to the winds, since trackers can aggravate feelings of self-loathing, failure, body shaming, and feeling out of control.
You may not instantly fall prey to disordered eating behaviors, but you may start setting impossibly high standards for yourself. By promoting an image of perfectionism, these apps take the reigns over your life and push you into an abysmal illusion that leaves you vulnerable to depression.
These apps play on people’s desperation to control what goes into their body and the effect it has. At first it can be almost therapeutic to log what you’ve eaten, but it becomes a perverse game of arithmetic that drowns you in numbers. Constant monitoring of food intake and physical activity inadvertently triggers the symptoms of disordered eating and fuels our already prevalent obsessive and highly self-critical perfectionistic tendencies.
Not to mention, Competition and comparison adds to the stigma about eating disorders being attention-seeking. Many individuals with eating disorders take to constantly comparing their weight, but now with social media and technology, time is irrelevant, and the comparison group is global.
Psychologist and eating disorder specialist Dr. Stacey Rosenfeld says that,
“Sufferers can compare their food intake against someone’s from another country who posted the data three months prior. The comparisons are infinite. So, if someone is trying to restrict their intake but didn’t do as ‘good’ a job as someone that posted their intake prior, this might fuel distress, resulting in increased restriction in order to alleviate the distress around the perceived failure.”