Eating disorders week: Your food tracking app may not be so healthy
Of all the things for a generation to be obsessed with, fitness and well-being seems to be pretty harmless.
While the 20-somethings of the past would binge drink cheap wine and party until the early hours (or so I vaguely remember), my hangover-free contemporaries seem more likely to ask to arrange to meet at a yoga studio for an acai bowl than anything else.
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Part of this, perhaps, is due to the way that technology has allowed us to access so much more information on health, fitness and nutrition: we can do pilates in our living room by following YouTube videos, find healthy version of every recipe in the world within seconds and even use our phones to help us meditate.
But by far one of the most common technology products honing in on this trend are the myriad of apps, which are supposed to help us track our fitness levels, water intake, sleep patterns and – crucially – food habits.
Ads for these apps follow me around Instagram, Facebook and Google, they strike deals with influencers to feature them in their YouTube videos and even appear on the escalators in the Tube every now and then.
Abbie is a 21-year-old student based in Wiltshire. Like me, she saw all the hype around these fitness trackers, and downloaded an app last year in the hope it would help her be a bit more healthy.
‘As soon as you sign up, you put your weight in and say how much you want to lose.
‘It tells you how long it’ll take you to reach your desired goal and at the time it seemed like ages, but I quickly realised that if I reduced the calorie intake, it would tell me I could lose more weight quicker.’
This attitude quickly spiralled into an obsession, checking the app multiple times a day, tweaking what was inputted to see how she could lose weight quickest by eating the food with the fewest calories.
‘I thought it would make me feel better and healthier, but it just turned into a really negative control issue.’
The app that Abbie downloaded – like many of these products – encourages users to input a huge amount of data: weight, height, fitness goals, how much water you drink, how many steps you walk – but most crucially, every morsel of food you put in your mouth.
There are of course benefits to this kind of exercise.
Understanding the nutritional breakdown of meals and ingredients can be incredibly helpful to leading a more balanced and healthy diet, and there is some evidence that people who keep a food diary are more likely to lose weight.
But there are flip sides too.
To track your intake properly, you need to mostly focus on eating foods that the app can calculate.
This means weighing your ingredients, measuring out salad dressing, counting calories – not to mention carbs, protein, fibre and vitamin intakes – and avoiding anything you haven’t prepared yourself.
These are all textbook signs of disordered eating, yet the apps are billed as ‘healthy’ – often they don’t even mention weight loss – which can make it hard for us to identify the negative aspects of these behaviours.
Dr Christine Buske is a behavioural neuroscientist and writer based in Canada and London.
She sees how these apps, which almost ‘gamify’ our food and exercise, can be a real problem for people who have struggled with disordered eating in the past.
‘These behaviors can be awakened easily when people are using a tool that makes their controlling behavior more “normalized”.
‘It can make the disordered eating worse because a lot of the apps encourage food tracking, and calorie control.
‘This “data gathering” aspect of entering food can become a rewarding stimulus for people – they can experience pride and euphoria from tracking very little food, because they ate very little, and thus get in under their max calorie count for the day.’
According to the mental health charity Mind, eating problems can stem from a large variety of concerns, but they are most commonly considered to be an outlet for control – people who feel aspects of their life are chaotic and beyond their ability to change, can fixate on food as a way to gain back some autonomy and a sense of calm.
Food-tracking apps feed right into this ideal: they tell you that if only your life was healthier, you would feel great, be more productive, look amazing and live the Instagrammable fantasy life we all dream of.
Lily* (whose real name she’s asked we don’t publish) is a 25-year-old journalist based in London.
She has a history of complex relationships with food, and downloading these apps made it worse.
‘These apps play on people’s desperation to gain control over what they eat. At first it can be almost soothing to write down everything you’ve eaten, but it becomes a perverse game of arithmetic.’
Lily is referring not just to the calorie counting, but to the way these apps give you extra calories to consume everytime you log exercise – even just a 20 minute walk.
Abbie expressed similar concern for the idea that you can just ‘write off’ calories through exercise – after all, wellbeing shouldn’t be a numbers game.
Zoe Thompson is a life coach who – among other things – is passionate about helping clients lose weight in a healthy way.
‘These apps can be easy to use and informative but the information has to be used in the right way, and users need to be able to understand the data that it is collecting and why.
She said that she’s had clients who have used food tracking apps successfully, and others who she wouldn’t feel comfortable suggesting them to.
‘Before I recommend using apps like this, I will have a conversation with clients about their normal habits and routine. Many people need to be more conscious of their eating habits and behaviours, but not all need to count down to every last calorie,’ she said, explaining that for many of her clients a meal planner, for example, is as far as they’ll go.
Everyone I spoke to was quick to point out that these apps can work really well for certain people who don’t have any negative or preconceived notions towards food – Lily suggested her dad might benefit, for example.
But these apps are rarely marketed at middle-aged men; they focus on young women in their 20s and early 30s, who want a quick easy fix to be ‘healthier’ and – perhaps subconsciously – end up looking like the lean, tanned, glowy women in the Instagram posts.
And these may be the exact people most at risk of developing obsessive behaviours.
‘Most of my female friends in their twenties don’t necessarily have eating disorders, but they do have complicated relationships with food, and I think the apps can bring that out in people,’ said Lily.
Abbie is also concerned about younger people in their pre-teen or teenage years downloading the apps.
‘There’s no age restriction for many of them like there is for so many other apps, and for vulnerable young people, it can really shape the way they view food and nutrition,’ she said.
Dr Buske agreed that these products are not for everyone.
‘You can think of food tracking or diet apps as any other tool, when used correctly and responsibly it can be very positive,’ she said.
‘But anyone who has an unhealthy pattern of eating can easily turn these apps into an additional crutch to support their disordered eating and obsession with food.’
Ultimtely, everyone needs to make a choice for what eating and food tracking habits are right for them, while remembering that just because an app tells you it’s ‘healthy’, that may not be the reality for everyone, and sometimes it just needs to be deleted.
If you need to speak to someone about your relationship with food, contact eating disorder charity Beat.