By SARAH GALZERANO
In today’s day and age, when people want to diet they tend to turn to fitness trackers (wearable bands or online apps), because “technology is amazing”! Surely, fitness trackers have been known to help people lose weight and meet other fitness goals – mine helped me lose 50 pounds. But are they as safe as we think they are, or is something that’s supposed to be healthy actually making us unhealthy?
MyFitnessPal is a commonly used fitness-tracking app (among many), because it’s free and available for various devices. This app does just about everything you could think of: tracking your weight loss, setting a weight goal, setting a daily calorie goal, setting nutritional (carbs, fat, protein) goals, calculating net calories, and calculating possible future weight based on daily intake. It also calculates caloric expenditure. However, if you’re using the app by itself, you have to input your physical activity manually, which gives you the opportunity to lie.
Recently, when you add a food item that, say, is high in fat, the app will remind you that you can’t consume much more fat for the day. If you don’t log your lunch by noon, it sends you a notification to do so. The same goes for breakfast and dinner. And if you don’t log anything at all for a number of days, it starts nagging you. This app literally sends you into a guilt trip.
Now, when you have a fitness tracker wristband, such as a Fitbit or Jawbone, connected to an app that collects this data, it’s a little more realistic. These bands can track steps walked, stairs climbed, distance, and ultimately calories burned. But instead of you personally inputting “I ran for 40 minutes”, the wristband knows exactly how long you ran, at what speed, and calculates a more exact amount of calories burned. This way you can’t lie to make yourself feel better.
If this sounds pleasing to you, you might need to reevaluate your life. There’s a “dark side” to dieting, and I believe that fitness trackers can aid the development of eating disorders such as Orthorexia Nervosa (trying to eat perfectly), Athletica Nervosa (being addicted to exercise), Anorexia Nervosa (starvation), and Bulimia Nervosa (binging and purging). While using fitness trackers, it’s easier than you think to develop the first two without even noticing it. If you’re trying to eat nothing but healthy food, feel guilty when you eat unhealthy, go workout because you ate a few extra calories, experience anxiety when you see a bad number, and spend hours inputting data, you may have a mild eating disorder. Your goal was to lose weight, not to develop a mental illness. To people who have already suffered from an eating disorder, fitness trackers are like liquor to an alcoholic.
I have known for a while that using a fitness tracker both positively (got me to a proper weight) and negatively (developing an eating disorder) affected me, but I was curious if these apps and wristbands have ever sent anybody else in a downwards spiral. I found several women online who personally blogged about their experiences with fitness trackers and eating disorders. I also surveyed people on Facebook, male and female, ages 13-57.
In my results I found that the older (24-57) the person, the less negatively affected (stress, self-shame) they are by the fitness tracker, and the more successful they are at actually becoming healthier and feeling good about themselves. However, old and young (13-20) alike, they did at some point become obsessed with numbers. Also, the older the person, the less they check the analytics of their tracker (1-5 times daily), compared to an anonymous 13-year-old who checks hers 15-20 times a day. What surprised me is that nearly everyone who took my survey felt motivated and aware when using their fitness tracker, even if they weren’t making progress.
While using a fitness tracker, it’s important to remember that by turning calories into numbers, you lose the nutritional value along with some of your sanity, and it is very time consuming. Calorie counting didn’t start with smartphones, but the arrival of such apps has created “a numbers-driven disease”, according to Dr. Kimberly Dennis, medical director of Timberline Knolls residential treatment center for mood disorders.
It’s unfortunate that there’s very little that companies like FitBit and MyFitnessPal can do to keep their product from falling into the hands of the young and naive. At least MyFitnessPal features a disclaimer in their community guidelines, and does occasionally remind you to eat more instead of less – if you log an incredibly low number of calories for the day the app, provides you with ways to safely meet your goals. Not everyone will listen. Eating disorders are no joke- don’t be fooled by fitness.