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Over 86 million people in the U.S. use some kind of fitness or calorie-tracking app, making them one of the most common, easily accessible data-crunching tools around. Their appeal is understandable—these apps allow the user to input daily calories and exercise, providing insight and a sense of control for users to make what they feel are good dietary decisions. But calorie-counting apps also have a dark side—one that can affect physical and mental health.
Calorie counting + triathletes = A potentially bad combination
Cori Ramirez remembers when she started to see signs of that dark side at a family barbecue this past summer. She had gotten up early to do a 40-mile ride and was looking forward to a lunch of grilled chicken with her favorite rice and black beans. Ramirez had input both the workout and the recipe in her app and was aware of how much she should serve herself to stay within her goals, but as guests arrived, she began to feel nervous. “I had this sense of panic. Everyone was showing up with different dishes. I knew I wouldn’t find them on the app and there was no way I would have time to enter them. I avoided eating almost everything but the two things I knew I could track.” Ramirez missed out on more than her aunt’s tres leches cake that day. She was so distracted by worrying about what and how much to eat that she doesn’t remember relaxing with family, enjoying her meal, or even how good she felt riding that morning. “It was like there was a cloud over me,” she said. “It felt terrible.”
For triathletes—a community of people already focused on achievement—calorie-counting apps provide a powerful cocktail of positive recognition for their accomplishments, assurance that they are doing everything “correctly” to attain those goals, and quantified feedback that becomes a measurable way to keep track of all of the above. Many triathletes are already obsessed with the numbers streaming out of our various devices, so calorie-counting apps seem like a perfect fit for our data-geek tendencies. However, the data they provide and some of the behaviors that they encourage might be far from perfect.
Apps may be addictive, but they’re largely inaccurate
Initially, athletes may feel that they’ve been successful when using the app leads to weight loss or body composition changes, but there many reasons why continued use of calorie-counting apps may create more problems than they solve. The apps function by calculating two numbers that are inherently flawed–the number of calories burned through exercise and the number of calories/nutrition content in a food. Calculating the exact number of calories a body burns is quite difficult and studies show that even using indirect calorimetry, the gold-standard measurement of caloric expenditure through pulmonary gas exchange that is conducted in a lab, is not perfectly accurate. Therefore, it’s difficult to imagine that a calorie-counting app would be highly accurate, since it uses only basic information to calculate caloric needs.
It’s also important to know that calorie trackers rely on often-unvetted nutritional data from largely inaccurate sources. Self-input recipe data relies on the accuracy of the user to estimate quantities and types of foods. Restaurant data assume that the restaurants follow a strict protocol universally, maintaining a standard ingredient list, quantity control, and preparation method in all instances. Unsurprisingly, research shows that this data can be highly inaccurate with some dishes containing 245% of the published calorie content. Finally, the USDA itself acknowledges that calorie counts listed on nutrition labels may be off by as much as 20%. In addition, factors like lean body mass, age, genetics, the status of the gut microbiome, hormonal fluctuations, and even stress levels can affect how many calories a body needs on any given day.
Counting calories vs. managing mental health
If the calorie apps calculate inaccurate data inaccurately, what do they do well? Unfortunately, they may be excellent at negatively impacting mental health. Multiple studies show that they are quite good at encouraging disordered eating, even creating eating disorders as people become obsessed with tracking every morsel of food and every moment of movement. Users often feel that they cannot eat, or do not know how much to eat, without tracking. They can become very distressed if they overshot their caloric goal for the day, reverting to restrictive behaviors to compensate. They may also lose touch with their hunger and satiety cues, a hallmark of disordered eating, as they defer dietary decision-making to the tracker.
The very structure of the apps may contribute to the negative impact on mental health. Many apps use gamification tactics, similar to those used in video games, to keep users hooked on the product and coming back for more. Whether it’s via push notifications, smiling vs. frowning face emojis, virtual prizes, or trophies won, studies show that the trackers can become addictive. Overly competitive, perfectionistic, and disordered behaviors can quickly emerge as users strive to achieve the numeric goal each day. Unfortunately, most apps do not have safety features built into the products that would recognize inappropriate or obsessive use. Even Instagram has automated features that warn about possibly dangerous use, yet no calorie-counting apps have a notification system for situations like dietary intake being too low or the user opening the app an excessive amount of times in one day.
Your nutrition expert shouldn’t be a calculator
The problem is that most apps are not built to manage mental and overall health along with dietary needs in the way that a registered dietitian or nutritionist would. In a recent meta-analysis of popular diet tracking apps, researchers noted that none of the products allowed for tracking emotional state as a way to understand success. In contrast, sports nutritionist Philip Bryden says that he wouldn’t even think of using apps with clients. “I prefer to co-create a more holistic strategy toward nutrition with each athlete, based on who they are, where they come from, their specific goals, and long-term health.” He believes in educating the athlete and encouraging them to be flexible, not rigid. “There is a much greater sense of empowerment when the athlete understands the mechanisms of fueling and nutrition. They can then adjust their foods according to preferences and needs, while understanding what happens and how it happens.”
Even if we are not able to work with a nutrition professional, there are questions that we can ask ourselves that will provide insight about whether our intake is meeting our needs, mentally and physically. Is the food we are eating providing enough energy for workouts, as well as everyday life? Do we feel hungry soon after eating? Do we feel sluggish during the day or in the middle of a hard session? Can we think well and do we feel mentally sharp? Are our moods balanced? Are we discouraged about food and eating? Are we willing to try new foods, recipes, or restaurants? Most importantly, is our current way of eating sustainable? Does it require us to do an excessive amount of measuring, counting, or restricting? It’s important to remember that our best source of nutritional data is ourselves.
Perhaps the most critical way that calorie-counting apps negatively affect mental health is that they pull us out of the moment, forcing us to assess a meal or workout from an objective standpoint and not a subjective one. It is painful to think that we would pause in the middle of a meal to pull out our phones and enter the calories in an unplanned dinner roll. It is sad to think that we would be uncomfortable sharing cookies with our kids because we know we have to track them later. And it is potentially damaging to forego an extra slice of pizza despite raging hunger because the app said so. Despite messaging to the contrary, we are capable of feeding ourselves well without an app—and we may just be healthier for it.
Is your calorie-counting becoming a problem?
- You don’t feel that a day is complete and can’t sleep without tracking all caloric intake and exercise
- You’ve paused in the middle of eating to consult your app in order to decide how much more you can eat
- You’ve refused to eat foods prepared by other people in a social situation when you can’t be sure of the ingredients and/or preparation methods
- You’ve added exercise to compensate for “too many” calories tracked
- You are anxious around meal times and/or when going out to eat, you’ll only go to places that disclose nutrition data on their websites
- You have a permanent window open on your computer with the desktop version of the app
- You can’t imagine not tracking
Jill Colangelo is a writer and researcher of mental health and ultra endurance sport. She has a BA and ALM in psychology and is a former triathlete and ultramarathoner.