Are diet apps / fitness trackers contributing to a rise in eating disorder behaviour?

3rd May 2018

‘Just a reminder to step on the scale and update your weight today’. The notification on my phone that makes me roll my eyes each week it pops up unexpectedly. Do I go and delete the app? No, why? Just in case I need it.


I have spent years working with children and adults with eating disorders, and a common theme that has become more and more prevalent is the use of fitness and diet apps. Apps that count calorie intake and monitor calorific output, apps that count your steps and remind you to ‘keep going, you’re doing great!’.


I am an advocate for healthy eating, everything in moderation, including exercise and incorporating a balanced lifestyle. These apps can be useful for those trying to maintain a healthy lifestyle, but for those predisposed to an eating disorder, they can be detrimental to their mental health.


There is a lot of discussions around these apps and trackers being a cause for an eating disorder, I believe that the cause of an eating disorder is much more complex and has a variety of different factors involved, but these apps can trigger an obsession with calories and/or exercise. If used for the wrong reasons, it can become a compulsion and a part of someone’s everyday life that they cannot manage without.

Grab a coffee- let me log it in my app. Go to the gym- let me log it first. Offered a snack- let me check the calorie content first.


These thoughts may start out small but can become entangled into a dangerous lifestyle of obsession.


Rather than these being the cause of an eating disorder, they play a part in the rise of eating disorder behaviours, increasing the eating disorder symptomology around exercise and calorie counting.


A recent study by Simpson and Mazzeo, explored the relationship of fitness trackers and its relation with eating disorder symptoms. 493 undergraduates took part in the study. 19.6% of undergraduates used some type of fitness device while 13.8% used a calorie tracking device. Use of one predicted use of the other, with 64.7% of the calorie-tracker users also reporting they used fitness trackers. They noted that there is relation between eating disorder symptoms and the use of the trackers. They summarised that they may cause more harm than good in certain cases, where they can fuel their pathology.


Overall, there are positives to these apps and trackers, for those who are capable to take a step back when they realise it has become too much, and for those who use them alongside a balanced diet. But for those who struggle daily with their body image, the competitive side of exercise, compulsions to do better, negative relationships with food and become dependent on these apps, they can the be the first step in a downward spiral.


If you feel you are using these apps for negative reasons, please reach out and talk to somebody. The help and support is there, that you don’t need an app or device for.

Take a look at some of our other posts:

Rise of eating disorders, especially Orthorexia

April 17, 2018

Parent and Carer Support Groups

August 13, 2018

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