Counting Down to Crisis

Are calorie counting apps exacerbating eating disorders among our upcoming generation, and if so, why aren’t we challenging this?

By Ella Morel | @Ella_Morel

With the ever increasing pressure to look and be a certain way in our current society, there is no doubting the fact that calorie counting apps have soared in popularity, with millions of users counting desperately to try to fit into the false idea of what makes someone beautiful. Effectively, ‘the skinnier you are, the more beautiful you are.’

However, whilst calorie counting apps are ‘on the up’, so are eating disorders; professionals believe that approximately 1.25 million people in the UK are affected. With the average onset of anorexia nervosa being age 16-17, this begs the question, are we doing enough to prevent the development of eating disorders in young people, whilst calorie counting apps are still accessible to all, with no age proofing or background medical checks in place?

MyFitnessPal was first launched in 2005, by Mike Lee, a bridegroom with a desire to lose weight before his wedding. Since then, the app has become a hit with people across the globe, with over 80 million active users. The app allows you to log your food and fluid intake, and advises you how many calories to consume each day based on your height, weight and level of exercise. Although this sounds like a safe way to go about losing weight, MyFitnessPal will often recommend a daily calorie intake of 1200 or less, which isn’t even a sufficient amount for a toddler. James, a 26 year old Nottingham-based personal trainer, says, “I always ensure that I do not drop below 1400 calories for anyone, because ultimately, they will have no energy, and it’s not necessary; it’s bad for both their mental and physical health to not be eating enough.”

TikTok fitness influencer, Millie Hood, uses calorie counting apps on a daily basis, and has seen firsthand the positive and negative impacts that calorie counting brings. She started her journey at the beginning of January 2021, despite having a positive relationship with her body. “I’ve always been a confident person”, she says, “and I’ve always been taught, growing up, to love the skin that you’re in. However, one day, I was shopping, and I looked at myself and thought oh wow, okay, I look quite different’ to the last time I had seen myself in a full length mirror. And I thought, for my own sake, I need to change a lot here.”

Millie, like many, started counting calories and dieting for all the right reasons. She admits that as time has gone on it has become harder to not obsess over numbers, both in the form of calories and the number on the scales. “Sometimes, I do feel as though the numbers get too much and I find myself worrying, what if I go over my calories today?” Before calorie counting, Millie didn’t actually own a set of scales, so to get some was a huge step for her. “The first time I weighed myself, I was like wow okay, that’s a number I did not want to see.” Having taken breaks when she needed it, Millie has prevented herself from falling into a potential dark hole. But this isn’t the case for everyone; for some it’s merely impossible to not get obsessed with the number on the scales. Being in touch with others on the TikTok platform trying to lose weight, Millie says, “I know other people, who have found it really difficult not to weigh everyday.”

Millie is the perfect example of somebody who has been able to reap the rewards from calorie counting without letting it completely take over her life; however, for some, calorie counting can potentially be extremely dangerous.

“Many people with eating disorders count calories to the point of obsession, and apps can make recovery harder.”

App creators have been criticised for allowing their platforms to be misused by people with eating disorders. Despite arguing that their app promotes healthy eating, and that they do in fact have safeguarding in place to protect their more vulnerable users, the BBC found some people logging self-harm and punishments for over-eating on MyFitnessPal and similar apps. Many of these entries were promoting dangerous cycles of starving and binging.

Tom Quinn from the charity ‘Beat’ explains how “Many people with eating disorders count calories or track weight loss to the point of obsession, and such apps can facilitate or exacerbate such behaviours and make recovery harder.” Furthermore, Arti Dhokia, an advanced eating disorder dietician at Priory’s Woodbourne Hospital in Birmingham said that more moderation was needed, and “Until they get rid of those kinds of entries there’ll always be the use of them with people with eating disorders.”

With eating disorders severely affecting the sufferers quality of life, and anorexia having the highest mortality rate of any psychiatric disorder, why is more not being done to prevent the development of, or worsening of eating disorders amongst our younger generation?

According to a study done by ‘Duke Health”, 73.1% of people identified calorie counting apps as a contributor to their eating disorder symptoms. So what is the solution? Newly qualified personal trainer, James Morel believes that incorporating age proofing and background medical checks into calorie counting apps would be hugely beneficial for young people and those with a pre-existing eating disorder; “Although it is a small change for a huge problem, I think it would be a great start in tackling the increase of eating disorders, and to be honest, I’m not sure why they haven’t already done this, because it is clear that their apps are having negative implications especially on young people.” Millie Hood agrees “if you’re under the age of 18, this should not be your mentality, it shouldn’t be drilled into you that this is what you have to do.” Currently, MyFitnessPal has an age restriction of over 18’s only, however with users not being required to prove their age, the app is really accessible for anyone and everyone, despite it not always being an appropriate option for the individual.

Some would argue, however, that we can never really protect young people from being exposed to unhealthy habits and disordered eating, when social media exists so prominently in their lives. Millie explains how she is often exposed to these unhealthy and toxic videos, when they are displayed on her “ForYouPage” (a place for videos filtered to fit your interests, to be displayed on TikTok). “I see a lot of videos, of people that are eating less than 800 calories, which of course, can be really bad for your mental and physical health.” But not only are these behaviours and videos damaging for the person posting them, they can also hugely influence others to engage in such behaviours, or make people with healthy eating habits question their own calorie intake. ”I feel like there’s been times, where I have looked at other TikTok videos, and I’ve thought am I overeating?” says Millie. But this isn’t the only concern; “I know that quite a lot of younger people have TikTok, and to think that they might see videos where people are consuming 600-800 calories a day is quite scary.”

There are clearly changes that need to be made. By putting these background and age proofing checks in place, we would be making a positive start in attempting to prevent eating disorders in young people. However, this single handedly is not going to solve the problem which stems from far more than a calorie counting app. Until, as a society, we shift our mindset away from feeling the need to be skinny to fit the beauty standards, eating disorders, ultimately, are always going to exist. Therefore, although I do believe that calorie counting apps play a huge part in exacerbating eating disorders, they are also just kindling a pre-existing flame.


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