Have you been tracking your food via a calorie-counting app?
Maybe you’ve been tracking your exercise through a wearable or other system. Did you know such tracking:
- May encourage a disordered relationship with food and your body?
- May actually be jeopardizing your health rather than helping you to monitor it?
If you’ve noticed that you’re becoming obsessive about what you eat or how you move your body, it might be a good idea to examine your relationship with any tracking devices you are using.
People may track their weights, food consumed, and workouts in the name of health. But for many people, tracking such data can actually be detrimental. Preliminary research shows that the use of MyFitnessPal can contribute to eating disorder symptoms in undergraduates (Simpson & Mazzeo, 2017), adults with eating disorders (Levinson et al., 2017) and men (Linardon and Messer, 2019).
The research is not clear about exactly why these devices can be so detrimental. In my experience working with patients with eating disorders who track, tracking cuts people off from their bodies and their own regulatory systems. People who track become reliant on objective measures and data for making decisions about how much to eat and how hard to exercise. They lose awareness of their own bodies’ signals. Perfectionistic traits may drive them to eat fewer calories, take more steps, and increase their distance or pace during a workout. Even those who don’t struggle with a diagnosable eating disorder can be negatively impacted by these tracking devices and apps, with individuals who previously had a perfectly normal relationship with food suddenly feeling completely consumed with thoughts about what they’re putting into their mouths.
This was brought home to me when working with a patient who was obsessively tracking his workout metrics. As we discussed doing a bike ride without his fitness monitor–just as an experiment to see how it felt—he argued passionately with me, with one telling objection being, “How will I know when to take a drink?” He had been timing his consumption of water according to time and distance.
I asked him the same question back: “How will you know when to take a drink?” Hearing it parroted back, he realized how strange the question sounded and how disconnected he had become from his own body.
Similarly, patients who count calories and carefully dole out lunches of specific caloric allotments become frightened when faced with a lunch of unknown (and likely higher) caloric value. Knowing that restaurant portions are larger and more calorically dense than the meals they make at home, they ask me how they can possibly avoid overeating. And then they are amazed when they find that they are sometimes satisfied with less than the entire portion of the restaurant meal, precisely because it’s more calorically dense and satiating.
Once they are no longer eating according to self-imposed strictures, eating becomes a different experience. They gain the capacity to tune in to how they feel while eating the food, rather than just eating to completion of their allotment–and they find that their bodies tell them when to stop eating. Life without tracking can become a freeing and enjoyable experience in which you can be fully present during meals, exercise for joy, and engage with the people around you and your surroundings—having deep conversations without intrusive thoughts and becoming mesmerized by beautiful surroundings when you exercise outdoors, for example.
Our bodies are wonderful, self-regulating mechanisms. Our bodies tell us when we need to urinate or have a drink of water or when it’s time to eat and when it’s time to stop eating. When we succumb to diet or wellness culture and stop trusting our bodies and start relying on external systems to tell us when to drink or how much to eat, we become disconnected from our bodies and we lose the ability to recognize these signals.
How to Stop Tracking
If you find that you are obsessively tracking your food or workouts, I invite you to try the following experiment:
- Fitness tracking: do one workout without your monitor. During and after your workout, rather than looking at your metrics to evaluate the workout, ask yourself instead how your body feels/felt during the movement and afterward.
- Food tracking: eat a meal where you do not know the caloric content. Tune in to how you feel while eating it. How does it taste?
Levinson, C. A., Fewell, L., & Brosof, L. C. (2017). My Fitness Pal calorie tracker usage in the eating disorders. Eating Behaviors, 27, 14-16.
Linardon, J., & Messer, M. (2019). My fitness pal usage in men: Associations with eating disorder symptoms and psychosocial impairment. Eating Behaviors, 33, 13–17.
Simpson, C. C., & Mazzeo, S. E. (2017). Calorie counting and fitness tracking technology: Associations with eating disorder symptomatology. Eating Behaviors, 26, 89-92.