The Dangers of Calorie Counting Apps

As Holidays Approach, Health Tech Not the Healthiest Choice for All 

With the holidays right around the corner, there’s one gift that is making many people’s wish lists: health tech. From smartwatches to smart scales to fitness trackers, these devices are often top of mind during the holidays, especially as people start to think about setting health-related resolutions for the new year.  

But for those who are struggling with an eating disorder, these devices may do more harm than good. 

 Topping Holiday Wish Lists 

Many Americans use technology to track their health and fitness goals. According to Pew Research Center, about 1 in 5 U.S. adults wear a fitness tracker or smartwatch, with women (25%) more likely to wear these devices than men (18%). 

When it comes to the holidays, the National Retail Federation said that electronics are the fourth-most-popular items on consumers’ wish lists. Gift cards were at the top (56%), followed by clothing and accessories (47%), and books and other media (32%). 

And although COVID-19 continues to create uncertainty about what this year’s holidays will look like, holiday spending has the potential to break last year’s record. The National Retail Federation projects that consumers will spend up to $859 billion this holiday season, up from $777.3 billion in 2020.  

That’s a lot of fitness tech stuffed in stockings or tucked under the tree. 

Amplifying Negative Feelings 

When a person has a healthy relationship with food and their body, using technology to track how much they eat or exercise likely won’t harm their physical or mental health. But if that foundation isn’t there, using health tech can contribute to unhealthy or dangerous eating or exercise habits. 

A recent study found that adults who used calorie-tracking apps to control their weight or body shape were more likely to say that the apps contributed to various eating disorder symptoms than those who used the apps to improve their health or prevent diseases.  

Although eating disorders affect everyone differently, there are a few reasons this can happen to some people. Those who have an eating disorder often struggle with anxiety, perfectionism, and shame — feelings that can be amplified by tracking food, eating behaviors, and exercise. 

When someone struggles with their relationship with food and eating, they can become obsessive about tracking what they eat, to the point where they may feel compelled to be so exact with what they track that it can interfere with their daily life. 

For others, the way these trackers are designed can change their relationship with food and eating. Within many of these apps, foods get categorized, assigned numbers, and sometimes even labeled as good or bad.  

This creates a numbers game for many users, and they do whatever they can to make those numbers go down. Health and fitness trackers further gamify the experience by using badges when a person hits certain milestones or color-coding to trick the mind into thinking that lower is always better.  

And if a person isn’t hitting their calorie count or reaching their exercise goals? They don’t receive any virtual high-fives from the tracker, but they may receive a nudge to do better — even if “better” isn’t necessarily healthy.  

Get in Touch with Your Experience 

Not everyone has a negative experience when they use health and fitness trackers. But knowing how to spot unhealthy use is the first step toward eating disorder prevention. These are some questions you can ask yourself when using health tech: 

  • What is your motivation for tracking? Trackers use just a few metrics to calculate your suggested calorie intake, and they typically don’t recognize when users set numbers that are too low to get enough nutrition. A dietitian has the expertise to help you determine in detail the nutrition your body needs. You can work together to ensure that those needs are met in a way that honors your body, hunger, history, and movement level. 
  • Do you avoid eating foods you can’t log in the tracker? Calorie-counting apps typically include a robust library of foods, but they often don’t have everything you might eat. If you can’t find a food in the app, do you avoid eating it to make sure that you can always log everything? 
  • Do you try to log everything you eat, no matter how small? From lettuce leaves to communion wafers, do you try to log everything, no matter how small it is? Do you feel anxious if you aren’t able to log something you ate? 
  • How do you feel on the days you don’t hit your goals? Do you feel anxious, depressed, ashamed, or guilty if you don’t hit the calorie or exercise goals you’ve set in your tracker? 
  • Can you skip logging a meal or workout? How do you feel if you skip logging a meal or workout? 

Getting in touch with your experiences and feelings — or becoming more self-aware — can help you recognize whether using health tech is having a positive or negative effect on you. As you use these devices, check in with yourself every now and then.  

Follow Your Intuition
If you’re stuck in the mindset that it didn’t happen unless you tracked it, you may want to try letting your body take the wheel.  

Closely tracking your food and exercise can put the focus on weight loss, but approaches such as intuitive eating and joyful movement change that focus to what feels healthy and positive for your body.  

When you eat and move intuitively, you no longer categorize foods as good or bad, and you don’t exercise to compensate for something you ate. Your body was born with the ability to tell you what foods and movements feel right for you, and you can get back in touch with those skills. Intentional and mindful exploration of intuitive eating and movement can make these parts of your life much more enjoyable. 

Using health tech should be fun, so if you find yourself struggling, reach out for professional help. There are experts who can help you bring that joy back to your life. 

About Carolina House 
Carolina House is an eating disorder treatment center that serves people age 17 and older of all genders. Within our residential and outpatient programs, we offer a range of services, such as LGBTQ- and male-inclusive programming, to help individuals who are struggling with eating disorders and co-occurring mental health conditions. Our treatment connects individuals with the care they need to achieve long-term recovery from eating disorders and other mental health concerns. For more information, visit