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Eating Disorder Awareness Week: Fitness Apps Are Telling Adults To Eat The Same Calories As Toddlers

by : Emily Brown on :
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Thanks to a range of fitness apps, counting and tracking calories is easier than ever. Unfortunately, this also means that app users are more aware than ever of whether they meet, exceed, or fail to hit their calorie ‘allowance’. 

As we increasingly rely on technology to help track our steps, heart rate and other aspects of our health, it’s not that unusual that many people rely on apps to also monitor their food.

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The use of fitness apps is extremely common, so much so that many phones come with some form of fitness tracker pre-installed on the device. They can undoubtedly be beneficial for a lot of people, for example by encouraging users to get their steps up or allowing people to record their sleeping patterns, but some features of fitness apps can also prove detrimental.

Person on phonePixabay

For people with eating disorders, having easy access to calorie counters may inhibit efforts to recover, for example by alerting users if they exceed their recommended daily calorie intake or setting calorie recommendations that are unhealthy and difficult to maintain.

These features may trigger feelings of guilt if the person believes they have overindulged, or encourage people to limit their intake unnecessarily.

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Phoebe Webb, a mental health writer and campaigner from Suffolk, used a fitness app during her ‘darkest days’ after she developed anorexia as a teenager. At the time, the 28-year-old believed that the more ‘physical damage’ she inflicted on herself, the ‘more successful’ she was.

Speaking to UNILAD, Phoebe added, ‘I believed that if I died, I would have ‘won’ at anorexia.’

Phoebe WebbPhoebe Webb

Phoebe was admitted to a psychiatric hospital aged 17 and again at 20 for five and six months respectively. Though she improved with each admission, her recovery wasn’t sustained and it wasn’t until after ‘numerous more relapses and three admissions to a day patient programme’ that she was finally ready to navigate recovery out of treatment.

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On the run-up to her second hospital admission, Phoebe said a fitness app ‘really fed into [her] obsession with calories’.

She explained:

I logged everything I ate, all of my exercise, and my weight every time I stepped on the scales. Every time I added data, the app would give a projection of expected weight loss if I carried on with such a diet and exercise regime. The most concerning thing is that it never flagged up that my intake or weight were too low.

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Some fitness apps have come under fire online as they have been known to recommend calorie intakes far below the average recommendation given by health experts, leading users to feel as though they have to eat less in order to abide by the app’s suggestions.

One Twitter user described downloading an app to track her protein intake, only to have it ‘yell’ at her for eating more than 1200 calories. They commented, ‘1200 calories is for a toddler. Yes I will go over it.’

Another app user wrote, ‘Every single app I tells me to eat 1200-1300 calories a day. There is absolutely no way. I had that with breakfast, lunch, & a snack and I’m starving.’

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NHS guidance suggests that the average man needs around 2,500 calories a day to maintain a healthy body weight, while the average woman needs around 2,000 calories a day. In comparison, Anna Hardman, an advanced dietetic practitioner from South Yorkshire, told UNILAD that the estimated average requirement of a four-year-old child is between 1,291-1,396 calories per day.

She commented, ‘When comparing this to the suggested calorie intake of some popular fitness apps, which may recommend 1200-1500kcal per day, you begin to see where the problem lies. There is no wonder these apps are criticised.’

Anna noted that estimating personal calorie intake to reach your goals – whether this be to maintain, lose or gain weight – is ‘complex’.

Speaking to UNILAD, she explained:

In order to calculate someone’s calorie requirements accurately, an app needs to consider many factors, such as gender, height, weight and level of activity – including the finer details the specific type and intensity. In order to get all this detail, the app must be very complex.

To calculate a calorie intake target, users need to provide an estimated activity level and a weight goal. The estimated activity level has a big impact on the calorie target and if a user self-estimates and this is not accurate, the calorie target will be off.

Some apps allow users to set an overly aggressive rate of weight loss which is unsafe.

The importance of accurate recommendations cannot be understated, as Anna explained that inaccuracies on fitness apps may facilitate eating disorders or encourage undereating.

One of the ways an app may do this is by miscalculating nutritional requirements, leading to deprivation and physical hunger.

The dietetic practitioner explained, ‘Users may start to lose weight in an unsafe way. Weight loss for these people may seem very positive at first. If they lose a lot of weight they may gain a sense of achievement and satisfaction, and even praise from others. Given this, the person may go on to lose even more and end up reaching a very low weight.’

Anna reiterated that low calorie recommendations may incite feelings of ‘guilt or shame’ if the user exceeds the recommendation; in turn, Anna noted, this can ‘have a negative effect on their relationship with food’.

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Phoebe stressed that ‘an eating disorder cannot be measured by weight or calories, it is about the person’s relationship with food’, but she expressed her belief that the use of her fitness app ‘absolutely did encourage [her] dangerous behaviour’.

She noted that eating disorders are already ‘very secretive illnesses’, and that fitness apps are ‘part of the wider diet culture that makes eating disorders so easy to hide’.

Phoebe continued:

Weight loss by any cause is widely encouraged with no regard for what caused it, even illness. Dieting apps… can convince an eating disorder sufferer that what they’re doing is okay.

Phoebe WebbPhoebe Webb

While weight loss can be done safely with a sensible calorie deficit – aka burning off more than you are eating – it can become harmful if undereating becomes a ‘way of life’.

Anna pointed out that failing to provide your body with the right nutrition over a long period of time can have a negative impact on mental health, including anxiety and depression, as well as increasing the risk of nutritional deficiencies, long-term gastrointestinal issues, osteoporosis and fertility issues.

Phoebe continued to use her fitness app while in hospital, where she tried to log everything she was being fed despite not knowing the exact calories. The app started projecting that she would gain weight, and although that was the purpose of her being in hospital, she found the notion ‘too distressing’ and stopped using the app.

Person taking picture of foodPixabay

The mental health campaigner has now been in recovery from her anorexia for six years, though she has still experienced ‘blips’ into undereating, and in 2019 she redownloaded an app and input her data in order to receive daily a calorie recommendation.

Phoebe recalled:

In order to get this recommendation, I entered my medically healthy weight, an unnecessarily lower goal weight, and a rate at which I wanted to reach that goal. When it stated I should eat a mere 1,200kcal a day, there was no mention that it was unhealthy or that my current weight was healthy.

For the sake of the wellbeing of other users, I was immediately angry. I already knew this was damaging advice and had developed tools to overcome the thoughts and urges it prompted.

Had I been given that advice when I wasn’t in recovery and a lot more vulnerable, it would have further cemented that my restrictive diet was right and necessary, and contributed to the denial that it was healthy, not disordered. Diet culture has no regard for health.

Phoebe WebbPhoebe Webb

In order to live healthily, Anna recommended setting ‘realistic goals that will work for you. Try and adapt the following principles: eat regular meals, aim for five portions of fruit and vegetables, focus on your portion sizes, drink plenty of water and keep active’.

She continued:

If people feel that calorie counting, tracking and measuring works for them to achieve their goals in a healthy way then this is fine. Just try and use an app which reflects your unique nutrient requirements. When calorie counting, tracking and measuring becomes a way of life then it’s no longer a healthy way to achieve the goal.

Phoebe stressed that fitness apps do not cause eating disorders, but noted that those who are predisposed to them may find the advice of apps to be ‘the catalyst into restriction’.

She commented:

Chronic dieting and eating disorders don’t fix anything; it may be a distraction from other problems that serves as a coping mechanism, but in the long run it adds mood instability, strained interpersonal relationships, physical health complaints and poor self-image.

As part of her recovery, Phoebe decided to take on short-term aims to help her advance from day to day, and week to week. She recommends avoiding the scales, and told anyone struggling with eating disorders that when it ‘loosens its grip on you’, you will be able to find joy in things that were impossible when life revolved around food and weight.

If you’ve been affected by any of the issues in this article and would like to speak with someone in confidence, call the BEAT Eating Disorders helpline on 0808 801 0677. Helplines are open 365 days a year from 9am–8pm during the week, and 4pm–8pm on weekends and bank holidays. Alternatively, you can try the one-to-one webchat

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Emily Brown

Emily Brown first began delivering important news stories aged just 13, when she launched her career with a paper round. She graduated with a BA Hons in English Language in the Media from Lancaster University, and went on to become a freelance writer and blogger. Emily contributed to The Sunday Times Travel Magazine and Student Problems before becoming a journalist at UNILAD, where she works on breaking news as well as longer form features.

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