Photo: “IMG_0376” by Nicole; Flickr CC by 2.0
Recently, I was sitting at my kitchen table with my roommate when she inspired me to start a column for The Quad, so here I am! My name is Dayna, and I’m currently a fourth-year in the accelerated B.S. nutrition and dietetics to M.S. community nutrition program. My goal for this column is to provide a place where students and faculty can learn about diet culture and the pressures of social media, along with all of the other aspects that play a part in the life of someone currently struggling or has struggled with an eating disorder and/or body dysmorphia or who is affected by this matter in any way. There are definitely a lot of topics out there that I want to write about, but if you find the focus of this column interesting or have your own ideas related to diet culture and/or body image, I would love for you to send me suggestions! With that being said, let’s get into the topic of food tracking applications.
Within the past few years, there have been a variety of food tracking applications added to app stores, making it easy to download and track your dietary intake straight from your phone. Applications such as MyFitnessPal, LifeSum, MyPlate, Cronometer and the FitBit app include a complete log of common foods and specific brands, making it easy to find exactly what you’re eating and be able to add it to your daily food log. These apps are designed in a way that allow you to make specific goals for yourself. You typically set up your account and include your current body weight, height, sex and age. Once those values are entered, you are prompted to set up a goal of weight loss, maintenance or gain. From there, the app will generate a recommended amount of calories, carbohydrates, protein and fat for you to be able to reach the goal you chose. Once your recommendations are final, you are ready to start tracking your foods. These apps can be very beneficial, specifically for individuals who are trying to lose weight and keep track of their calories. On the other hand, for many people, especially young people, using these apps can be the first step in developing a negative relationship with food.
In 2019, five researchers investigated how using food tracking apps can alter both eating and exercising behaviors in young adults, and their findings were published in the Journal of Medical Internet Research. Their study discovered four main areas of concern: participants reported feeling controlled by the app, resulting in obsessive behaviors, extreme guilt and food restriction, social isolation due to personal diet and fitness goals and fear of negative comments from friends and family. In my own experience with using food tracking apps, I often found myself being controlled by the app. The counting of every calorie I consumed and every bite I took was exhausting and negatively affected my relationship with food. If you are currently tracking and feel like it is taking over your life, I would recommend ditching the app. Here are a few things you could do to make this a little easier:
Focus on when you FEEL hungry. If you just ate lunch and are still hungry, listen to your body and EAT! It makes all the difference.
Try to put your phone down when you are eating. If you have been tracking for a while, the temptation to calculate your meal is most likely still there. Keep your phone in a different room and ENJOY your meal!
Remember that there aren’t good or bad foods: we all need sources of carbohydrates, fats and proteins to live.
Don’t obsess over nutrition labels. Although they are important, they are not everything.
If you have a smart watch, try to avoid tracking workouts, as this can also lead to a toxic relationship with food.
The way health and fitness has developed into a popular trend in our society is one of the main reasons these apps have become toxic for young adults. As I previously mentioned, they can sometimes be beneficial. If a person is following specific nutrition recommendations to reach certain goals, keeping a food log is the most accurate way to assess progress. However, when you start feeling like tracking is taking over your life and hurting your self-esteem, that’s when you need to stop. It will be hard at first, but don’t give up because in the end, it’ll be worth it!
*This is personal experience and advice; I am not a registered dietitian or nutrition expert**
Dayna Vacca is a fourth-year Nutrition and Dietetics major. [email protected]
Understanding the Role of Healthy Eating and Fitness Mobile Apps in the Formation of Maladaptive Eating and Exercise Behaviors in Young People
Mahsa Honary, Beth Bell, Sarah Clinch, Sarah Wild, and Roisin McNaney