In the last year, a number of my clients have come into meetings with their smart phones in tow to discuss nutrition apps. More often than not, these apps are confounding their struggles, making interruption of disordered eating more challenging, and ultimately, are creating – or contributing to – bumps along the already precarious road to recovery.
What’s more, the information distributed by these apps is questionable, at best.
For this reason, I’m going to discuss and review a few applications. Some I suggest you ignore. Or delete. And some I think you should know about.
Let’s begin with the destructive apps:
I bet you’ve heard of at least one of these. Both My Fitness Pal (MFP) and Lose It! (LI) combine calorie counting, fitness logging, and body change tracking.
I was introduced to these apps by a client who suggested that she found them useful to “maintain (her) sense of control.” As a clinician who has heard the C-word (control) on more occasions than I can count, I’m always interested to dig a little deeper to figure out what that really means.
For these apps, it means entering basic data: height, weight, gender, and age along with goals for weight. Behavior change isn’t part of their equation. If this doesn’t demonstrate how we, as consumers, let numbers dictate how we feel about food, weight, and body image, I don’t know what does.
Using these apps is easy enough. I explored them myself and this is what I found:
1. After entering my height, weight, gender, and age into both apps, I was presented with a number of calories that the application felt I should consume on a daily basis
2. Although I entered the same information into both apps, they spit out calorie allotment that varied by more than 500 calories/day.
As a dietitian, I can look at these numbers and make some sense out of them. That said, both of these apps greatly underestimated what I know to be the amount of food that I need to consume to feel my best – physically and emotionally.
3. For the sake of my experiment, I then added my breakfast into both MFP and LI. Turns out, my delicious breakfast resulted in my exceeding my ‘prescribed’ daily calorie allotment – that again, was in NO WAY correct. What’s worse, when I exceeded my allotted calories for the day the numbers on the app display changed from GREEN (good, I assume) to RED (indicating less-than good).
Examining this color change alone was a reminder of how very much these apps uphold the destructive premise of labeling food as either GOOD or BAD; suggesting that what you eat is an indicator of morality or self-control. In the case of most of my clients, “good” typically indicates food with lower calories or grams of fat while “bad” is the opposite, inferring that “good” or “bad” labels might directly translate to the kind of person you are or the kind of person you will be.
Let me be clear: Food is food. Food can be healthy, food can be nutritious, and food can be a part of your diet if it does nothing more than taste delicious. All food can fit into a healthy diet and a healthy life. (The only exception to this rule is around allergens or specific disease states.) Categorization of food as good or bad negates the value of eating, or not eating, based on personal taste. What you eat is NOT a determinant of the kind of human you are.
Obviously, these apps fall into the delete category.
Now, let’s explore productive apps:
1. Recovery Record is a tracking tool to connect you with your eating disorder treatment team, help you track meal plan compliance, and get motivation during the recovery process.
2. Take a Break! includes guided breathing and meditation exercises to help rejuvenate your mind and spirit or help you work through a difficult day. Lots of my clients use this app before meals or snacks to decrease anxiety and increase enjoyment of food.
As you know, you can find anything on the internet – good, bad, and otherwise. We’ve moved into a world in which the same is true for your mobile phone. Browse and download carefully.
If you are using a smart phone, computer, or tablet application that makes you feel badly about yourself or your food choices, please reconsider their place in your life. Work with a nutrition counselor or therapist to help you reclaim your sense of self while fighting against media messages and your eating disorder.
Thanks for reading! Please, ask questions and give me feedback!
About the Author:
Anna P. Sweeney is a registered dietitian and a nutrition counselor who specializes in the treatment of eating disorder clients. She has worked at various levels of care during her time at Walden Behavioral Care, presently serving as a nutrition expert on the inpatient eating disorder unit. Anna also owns her own nutrition counseling practice, Whole Life Nutrition, and serves the eating disorder population on an outpatient basis in Concord, MA.
For information about Whole Life Nutrition programs and services or to connect with Anna, please follow her on Twitter @DietitianAnna or email her at anna@wholelifeRD.com.