Information in this article may be unsuitable for those suffering from eating disorders or other food and exercise related anxieties and illnesses.
Fresh from a post-workout shower, you head into the kitchen for some quality refueling. Or perhaps groggy from a late night, you stumble toward the pantry for a quick bite before work. Either way, it’s breakfast time — or it should be. Instead of sitting down and enjoying that bowl of oatmeal, topped with a sliced apple and a scoop of peanut butter, or relishing that homemade two egg omelet with spinach and cheese, all you see are numbers: 150 calories, 80 calories and 90 calories, or, respectively, 70 calories, 70 calories, 25 calories and 50 calories. This is no exaggeration, no scare tactic. This is the eating experience when health tracking goes too far.
Doctors, dietitians, teachers, coaches and even former First Lady Michele Obama encourage living a healthy lifestyle through balanced eating and exercise. Eating well and remaining active are essential to the mental and physical health of a historically nomadic species. For people striving to achieve a healthier lifestyle, logging calories, counting macros and recording exercise can, in the short term, be beneficial in that it provides a base-line evaluation of what your body needs and what it can “do” in terms of physical fitness. But starting down this path of tracking health metrics quickly becomes a winding, complicated road that fosters negative behaviors toward food and prevents a balanced mind-body relationship.
“Being obsessed with counting calories can be a great way to preoccupy and punish yourself for trying to be healthy,” writes WebMD. “When you count calories every single time you eat something, you take what could be a happy, joyous and nurturing experience and turn it into a source of deprivation, stress and negative self-talk.”
Although no one recommends taking medical advice from an online website, WebMD does put this phenomenon to words rather concisely. When social media’s self-proclaimed gurus or apps like Fitbit, MyFitnessPal and LoseIt strip everything down to a number, calories consumed or calories burned, we soon follow suit. Everything becomes a number — and that number is never low enough.
It becomes a game of sorts. Albeit, a very sick sort of game. The rules are thus: If one’s daily caloric need is X, one strives to get a certain number of calories below X. Each day the bar drops lower and one bends, twists and contorts to slip under the limbo bar. Food becomes numbers, impediments to winning the game. Ironically, so-called health tracking soon yields absolutely no health benefits but numerous health consequences. Even those who are already leading a genuinely healthy lifestyle and who know their body’s needs can be sucked into the mayhem of obsessive health tracking.
“It became a little bit of an obsessive habit, especially around the food,” Bri Cawsey, a strength and conditioning coach, told Time regarding her Fitbit tracking. What began as a convenient tool for tracking runs quickly spiraled into what Dr. George Zgourides, a Texas-based psychologist, calls a “culture of health anxiety.”
Cawsey found herself unable to eat out with friends unless she looked up meals and nutrient breakdowns in advance. Her behavior fits with Zgourides’ observation that excessive concern about health issues and health tracking are preventing people from living normal, social, work and academic lives. Not to mention the toll on their own mental well-being.
“Now that you can count every calorie and every step you’re taking, people that might have some tendency toward an obsession with or a focus on numbers, this feeds the behavior in a way that is not always helpful,” said Zgourides.
Eating disorder patients often exhibit an obsession with numbers, whether it be calories, macros or weight. Although eating disorders are complicated illnesses with many different causes, and existed long before contemporary diet-trends, the underlying issues of the illness can be exacerbated by health tracking tools, according to Jessica Setnick, a Texas-based registered dietitian and eating-disorder specialist.
Beyond the psychological effects, obsessive health tracking also impedes a physically healthy lifestyle. “Many who count calories have reported going to bed hungry, obsessing over their calorie counting app, and becoming frustrated when their weight stalled at a higher number than expected,” writes The Daily Meal.
Contrary to the logic of calorie counting, extreme caloric restriction can impede weight loss and even cause weight gain. So, if one’s plan toward a healthier life includes getting both slimmer and leaner, an increase in daily calories might be needed. Nor is calorie cutting a sustainable form of weight loss. Studies show that over 90% of dieters regain everything they lost, or more, within three years. Although the human body’s capability of enduring hardship is astounding, such drastic weight fluctuations can cause irrevocable damage to one’s metabolism and other bodily functions.
Weight aside, how can being at constant war with one’s body really be considered a health lifestyle? “Calorie counting,” writes The Daily Meal, “is a strict version of dieting: the body’s natural signals of hunger and fullness are thrown to the wayside in favor of a predetermined number.”
The Fitbit buzzes to indicate it’s time to run, but it doesn’t know your body, sore from the gym, needs a rest day. The online generated meal-plan lays out a beautiful dinner heavy on vegetables and legumes, but it doesn’t know your body requires protein and complex carbohydrates to recover from an intense hike. And neither of them knows if your sick body needs sleep and chicken noodle soup. But, worse yet, neither do you. Health tracking tools completely blind users to their own body’s needs, forcing them to naively follow the rules of the game.
And the stakes are getting higher. Health tracking apps are starting to target children, whose developing bodies and minds are even more susceptible to long term health repercussions. If you or your child are seeking healthier eating and exercise choices, and an overall healthier lifestyle, there are better alternatives.
The Shapa scale does not flash a weight when stepped on. Standard scales are unreliable as weight can fluctuate by five pounds in one day depending on salt intake, hydration and menstrual cycle. Shapa instead aggregates three weeks of data to tell users if, across time, they are gaining, maintaining, or losing weight. In this way, Shapa focuses on patterns of the body, not a number.
YouAte offers a similar alternative to diet apps. The product allows users to log food and then categorize if they felt those decisions were “on-path” or “off-path” for their specific, individual plan for a healthy life. Calorie counter apps and other diet apps do not cultivate such mind-body awareness because their functionality is based on a general calorie formula.
Health tracking might be beneficial in the short-term when closely monitored by medical professionals. But its long-run sequences are hardly worth the risk. If you find yourself meticulously planning each meal, ignoring your body’s hunger cues, avoiding restaurants and meals out or becoming anxiety ridden at the thought of missing your daily health metric goals, it is time to disconnect from the health tracking tech and reconnect with your own mind and body.