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Calorie counting apps are dangerous

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Calorie counter app

There are more and more applications that offer accurate monitoring tools for certain health indicators. Counting steps, calories and physical activity on a daily basis offers greater awareness of one's lifestyle, but on the other it can present numerous health risks.

How calorie counting apps work

With the increase in the use of smartphones and tablets, they have been developed and popularized numerous applications to monitor daily behaviors in the field of health and nutrition.
In fact, there are apps that allow you to evaluate some health parameters, such as taking physical activity into account, counting steps and recording daily food intake in order to calculate your calorie intake. In particular, they are very widespreade “app contacalorie”that is, applications that allow you to record the caloric intake of individual meals and set weight objectives, monitoring the trend with graphs and percentages and dividing the food according to different parameters.

The goal of these tools is to offer support for management of calories consumed daily and evaluate the distribution of the relevant nutrients, providing useful data to gain greater awareness of one's diet and lifestyle. In fact, many studies have highlighted the benefits of these measurements in managing one's health. But, although these applications are very useful for learning more about some data, their use can encourage dysfunctional psychological modes, such as, for example, hypercriticism, perfectionism or obsession.

The daily use of applications that monitor the calories introduced in detail can promote behaviors of excessive worry, dysfunctional eating and favoring mechanisms typical of eating disorders. Recent research has shown, in fact, that constantly monitoring calories via these apps is often associated with eating disorders.

To know more:
Calorie needs: how many calories should I consume

The risks of strict calorie monitoring

When, rather than flexibly adopting the general guidelines applied to our personal condition, absolute and highly selective food rules are followed, a control mechanism can be triggered which can often lead to the implementation of a “strict diet”, that is, a rigid diet characterized by many rules.

The constant worry about food and emotional stress consequent, trigger the so-called “cognitive dietary restriction”that is, a way of thinking that encourages a dysfunctional approach to one's way of eatingleading, in fact, to restrictions, binges and feelings of guilt, even when there is no actual caloric restriction.

According to some studies, calorie counting apps can promote the adoption of a restrictive and unbalanced diet, therefore, they should not be used by anyone who may develop an eating disorder. The rigid monitoring defined by these apps leads, in fact, to overestimating the importance of body shape and triggering constant control of one's weight, values ​​and lifestyle metrics.

In a study by Linardon and Messer, participants who used calorie counting apps showed higher levels of food control and worry with frequent binge eating and compensatory behaviors. In another study by Levinson, Fewell and Brosof, 73% of people said that the calorie counter app contributed at least in part to the development of their eating disorder.

It seems, therefore, that the use of certain applications can contribute to triggering or maintaining some typical patterns of eating disorders, such as dichotomous thinking, excessive evaluation of weight and body shape, dietary restriction and consequent binge eating. It is not possible to determine the existence of a causal relationship between the use of calorie counting apps and the onset of eating disorders, but it is now certain that the high use of calorie monitoring tools leads to the consolidation of behaviors connected to food disorders.

If the use of calorie counter apps is not managed carefully, it can generate a highly rigid approach resulting in strict diets, sequences of extreme physical exercises, body dissatisfaction and a sense of failure for the times in which the set table is not fully respected. If we consider calories as an aspect to be hyper-controlled at all times, any behavior outside of the scheme will be experienced as a “mistake” that must be deserved or compensated for.
The use of calorie counting apps can, therefore, trigger, maintain and exacerbate the symptoms of eating disorders.
In light of these data, it is important to spread greater awareness about the risks deriving from the use of these apps and the dangers they pose to the health of those who use them.

Counting calories: a dangerous business

In recent years, the market for body parameters monitoring devices has seen strong growth, generating considerable profits. In fact, within our society, caloric restriction is an aspect that is often valorized and confused as an indicator of the person's merit or of his “willpower”; on the contrary, loosening control over calories and eating meals outside of one's plans is often considered a “failure” or a symptom of “weakness”.

We are constantly exposed to ahypercritical attention towards the aesthetics of bodies, through the diffusion of unattainable models of perfection or erroneous messages, such as, for example, the encouragement to undertake detox diets after every holiday or the invitation to “pass” the “swimsuit test” as best as possible. These formulas trigger a continuous frustration with one's physical form, pushing, in some cases, to adopt a highly rigid lifestyle based on sacrifices and deprivations.

In reality, in order to establish a truly healthy and conscious relationship with our body, more than promoting practices such as restriction or self-control, it is important educate to listen more to our needs, lfree from guilt, sacrifice, merit or rigidity. If we abandon the blaming vision of some foods, considered “mistakes” to be condemned or compensated for, we could adopt a more welcoming attitude, in which variations to the scheme can be accepted as natural and necessary moments within a general style of sustainable life. It is therefore important to improve and protect your personal psycho-physical balanceabandon the concept of sacrifice and restriction and learn to listen to your body with flexibility, without ignoring its signals just because, at times, they are unfavorable to the imposed metrics.

We are much more than a number on the scale, a graph at the end of the meal, a vote at the end of the day: the obsessive verification of all the parameters linked to our health and bodily aesthetics is unsustainable for the person as a whole. Food is not just calories and macronutrients: a more curious and less blaming approach towards nutrition will lead to more effective results from a health point of view, both in its physical and mental dimensions.

In light of what has been reported, it is therefore important to underline how each person and each stage of life has their specific needs. Calorie counter applications cannot replace the assessments and personalized programs offered by health professionals. In the area of ​​lifestyle, it is of fundamental importance to consider individual, physical and psychological needs as priorities, and to adapt them clinically to the individual's medium and long-term objectives. Only with the help of one or more professionals will it be possible to safely define and evaluate some aspects of one's health, as this is not just a set of data and statistics, but a state of general, physical, but also mental and social well-being.

Sources

  • Ellison, JM., Wonderlich, SA., Engel, SG. Application of modern technology in eating disorder assessment and intervention. In: Walsh, TB.Attia, E.Glasofer, DR., Sysko, R., editors. Handbook of assessment and treatment of eating disorders. Arlington: American Psychiatric Association Publishing.
  • Evans D. My fitness pal. British Journal of Sports Medicine. 2016.
  • Dalle Grave R. & Calugi S. (2017). Cognitive dietary restriction: the problem of its measurement. State of Mind.
  • Juarascio AS, Manasse SM, Goldstein SP, Forman EM, Butryn ML. Review of smartphone applications for the treatment of eating disorders. European Eating Disorders Review. 2015.
  • Levinson CA, Fewell L, Brosof LC. My Fitness Pal calorie tracker usage in the eating disorders. Eat Behav. 2017.
  • Linardon J, Messer M. My fitness pal usage in men: Associations with eating disorder symptoms and psychosocial impairment. Eat Behav. 2019.
  • Rentko E. Calorie counting application feedback: Potential impact on the teenage female psyche. Journal of Student Science and Technology. 2015.
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