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The Impact of Calorie Counting and Step Tracking Apps on Our Eating and Wellness Behaviours

In an era where technology governs much of our daily routines, it’s no surprise that our health habits have also found a digital outlet. Calorie counting and step tracking apps are now a regular part of many people’s day to day life. From methodically logging in every bite you take, to making sure you have your phone, smart watch or another device on you at any time to log in every step you take, these apps promise to guide us towards a healthier lifestyle. But how exactly do they influence our behaviours, and are these impacts always positive?

The Rise of Health Monitoring Apps

The proliferation of smartphones has paved the way for a surge in health-conscious applications. Calorie counting apps offer a comprehensive database of foods and allow users to monitor their daily intake with precision. On the other hand, step tracking apps have made it effortless to monitor our physical activity by counting steps, setting goals, and even encouraging friendly competition among peers.

The Promises They Hold

At first glance, these apps seem like a dream come true for anyone looking to manage their weight, improve fitness, or simply adopt healthier eating habits. The ability to track every calorie consumed and every step taken provides a sense of control and accountability. Some report these apps to be motivational and assist them in setting goals, by allowing them to track their fitness and nutritional aspects of the day to day life. The design of the apps are also highly engaging and target the reward centres in our brains to keep us motivated to use them.

Impact on Eating Behaviours

However, the relationship between these apps and our behaviours isn’t always straightforward. While they can certainly raise awareness and educate us about our eating habits, they also have the potential to foster an unhealthy obsession with relying on number from the appt to reassure ourselves that we are being healthy or controlled in our behaviours, as well as with numbers. Calorie counting, for instance, may lead to a fixation on quantity over quality, overlooking the nutritional value of foods in favour of hitting a specific calorie goal. This can sometimes lead to disordered eating patterns or an unhealthy relationship with food, as presented in one research where 73% of the participants stated usage of these apps has contributed to their eating disorder.

“I personally have a bias against these apps as at The Body Image Treatment Clinic we tend to only see the negative outcomes from the use of apps focused on Kcals for food or activity. It’s been one of the major changes we have seen in treating eating disorders over the last 10 years with having to spend increasing amounts of time supporting clients to manage their use of these appts. They tend to end up relying on these apps for reassurance and control seeking behaviours which play an increasing role in maintaining and possibly adding to the development of these conditions”

Thomas Midgley CBT & Compassion Focused Psychotherapist, Highly Specialised Eating Disorders Dietitian & Founding Director at The Body Image Treatment Clinic, Harley St, London.

Influence on Wellness Behaviours

Similarly, step counting apps, while encouraging physical activity, may inadvertently encourage an “all or nothing” mindset. Users might prioritise hitting a step goal at the expense of other forms of exercise or fail to appreciate the value of rest and recovery. This can lead to overexertion or neglecting other essential aspects of wellness, such as adequate sleep or stress management, with some research highlighting the unique association between the fitness activity tracking apps and eating disorder symptomatology.

Striking a Balance

These apps appear to offer some level of initial insight and understanding into certain metrics associated with health and wellness behaviours. However, from the experience of many, relying on those apps to dictate your approach to exercising and your nutrition can lead to more harm than good. Therefore, once that initial understanding has been gained, there is likely to be little need to rely on the apps, in particular to avoid getting into the negative cycle of letting the numbers of calories or steps dictate how you should feel or be living your life.

Conclusion

Calorie counting and step tracking apps offer the potential of different benefits, in particular to support and motivate individuals on their journey towards improved health and wellness. However, their influence on our behaviours warrants caution. While they can serve as valuable tools for guidance, they should complement, not dominate, our approach to healthy living. Being mindful of our bodies’ signals and adopting a holistic view of health, encompassing mental, emotional, and physical well-being remains paramount in our pursuit of a healthier lifestyle. Ultimately, it’s our approach to self-care and the conscious decisions we make daily that truly shape our well-being.

At The Body Image Treatment Clinic our experiences match the 73% who feel it contributes to eating disorder symptomatology. We don’t appear to see individuals who have found long term benefits from using these apps but imagine there may be many out there. As we navigate the digital landscape of health and wellness, we feel it’s good to embrace technology as a supportive ally rather than a rigid rulebook, allowing the flexibility and freedom to prioritise overall wellness over mere numerical goals.

References:

1. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S1471015316303646

2. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5700836/

3. https://research.usc.edu.au/esploro/outputs/99451015602621?institution=61USC_INST&skipUsageReporting=true&recordUsage=false

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