My Fitness Foe: The Secret Link Between Diet Apps And Eating Disorders

by Kat Black

At the height of his eating disorder Zach could eat two chickens by himself at a time.

“I was addicted to food,” explains the 38-year-old, who turned to dieticians, Overeaters Anonymous meetings and even hypnosis to treat his illness.

“None of this s**t worked. I’ve even tried drugs to try to lose weight.” But when asked if he had ever considered using a diet app, he said it never even crossed his mind.

Diet apps such as MyFitnessPal are marketed as weight loss tools that people can use to regulate their eating and exercise habits. They design a personalised diet plan based on the user’s ideal goal weight, which includes an inflexible calorie ceiling and a “tracker” where users can log meals and steps for each day.

In theory, this formula should work for overeaters. But Zach, who recently underwent gastric bypass surgery in a last-ditch effort to control his eating, disagrees.

“All those apps assume that you as an overeater have a rational connection with food and your body. But [eating] is the kind of thing you’ll do when your favourite team loses, or your girlfriend dumps you, or you suddenly realise you’re in debt. So it’s not something you’re willing to rationalise.”

Matthew, 40, has struggled with binge-eating disorder (BED) since he was a teenager. He said that the apps – some of which he has used himself – may also subtly reinforce some of the behaviours people with BED are desperately working to control.

“Because it kind of makes eating into a game, the first time that I fail – the first time that I don’t eat perfectly — I have this sense of remorse and shame. And what’s the best way to deal with remorse and shame? To go eat a plate of chips.”

Pacing for Hours

But it’s not only binge-eaters who may find their disordered thoughts triggered by diet apps. Rebecca Broughton, health care assistant at the Camden Eating Disorders Unit, says that the language of the apps also mirrors the internal voice of people who suffer from restrictive disorders such as anorexia nervosa.

“They send you pop-ups: reminders to step on the scale today, or ‘you haven’t put in your lunch, what’s up with that?’”

Broughton believes that MyFitnessPal is especially problematic because it fails to set caps on unhealthy goal weights. Despite offering a perfunctory warning against exceeding the recommended weight for their height, it does not actively discourage users from losing over 0.5 kg a week. She also says that patients in treatment may use it to facilitate compulsive behaviours around food and exercise that can quickly turn destructive.

“I know patients use it a lot for step counting. There are people who are trying to get up to 30,000 steps a day in an eating disorder unit, and just pacing incessantly for hours, four to five hours a night.”

Staff members at MyFitnessPal cite a statement from parent company Under Armour, claiming the app has “protective features that direct and redirect potentially vulnerable behaviour.” These include not generating a “congratulatory post” for users who log too few calories for the day and providing an assessment users can take to determine if they have an eating disorder.

Broughton also said that recovering sufferers often use diet apps to mask disordered behaviours, much as others may adopt a vegan diet or embark on extreme fitness routines to sublimate the habits they have given up in treatment. It’s a form of “disorder Whack-a-Mole” that, more often than not, can lead to relapse, as in the case of Marissa, 26.

If I Was Hungry, I Sucked it Up

Marissa, who was in residential treatment three times for anorexia, started using My Fitness Pal and Cronometer to track calories and macronutrients for the rigorous fitness regime she adopted in recovery.

“If I was hungry, I sucked it up if I had eaten my daily allotted intake. With MyFitnessPal, weight loss was praised and if someone you were following lost weight, it suggested that you congratulate them. That was never the case for gaining weight. It’s the typical: weight loss = good, weight gain = bad.”

But are these apps still useful for people who don’t suffer from an eating disorder or do they have the potential to encourage disordered behaviour where there was none before?

“A healthy lifestyle does not involve tracking numbers, macros and intake,” says Marissa. “We are not robots and require different caloric intakes every day. These apps instill an unhealthy view of food and can take the enjoyment of nourishing oneself away.”

Broughton agrees, adding that they factor into a broader health trend of “clean eating” that moralises food and glorifies restrictive eating patterns.

“It’s really harmful, because of the implicit definition of ‘dirty’ or ‘unclean eating.’ It makes foods into ‘fear foods’.”

In a social media landscape where lifestyle posts oscillate between “food porn” and regimental “fit-spiration” quotes, it’s clear that our attitudes about food have become wildly contradictory at best and, at worst, fearmongering. The language of diet apps exposes just how thin the line between “healthy” and disordered eating can be.

All foods can fit within a healthy diet if consumed in moderation. Featured Image by Prudence Earl on Unsplash


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