People recovered from eating disorders share just how dangerous popular apps can be
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The creators of popular food tracking apps are being urged to do more to protect users as they’re criticised for ‘exacerbating’ eating disorders.
The global fitness app market is a lucrative business, with an estimated value of around $22.1 million globally in 2021. But while many of people use them to track their fitness journey and health goals, for some it can spiral into a dangerous obsession with calorie counting.
Cara Lisette, 32, who developed anorexia at 13, started using US-based calorie tracking app MyFitnessPal as a teen, but only decided to delete it when she was 30 - after becoming 'completely obsessional' over it.
"They're [the apps] super addictive," she told Tyla. "It just makes you just more and more obsessive over it."
Despite being 'severely underweight' at the time, Cara says the app still congratulated her on weight loss and didn't prevent her from putting in dangerous goal weights.
"When I put in my weight, it would congratulate me on getting closer to my target," she says.
"There was nothing coming up on it saying 'actually, this is really unhealthy, you need to be gaining weight', it was just 'well done, you've lost more weight' - even though at the time I was really, really unwell.
MyFitnessPal told Tyla that it 'promotes a healthy lifestyle and that it does not recommend the app for those with eating disorders', and says members are able to report concerning behaviour on the app. When Tyla investigated, it found a pop-up message tells users their weight goal would take them to an underweight BMI - but it allows you to dismiss and continue.
As well as MyFitnessPal, Cara began using the Fitbit app, which she says was also 'really bad'.
"That [app] used to send me emails congratulating me on how much weight I'd lost. So I didn't even have to go on to the app to get that message - I could go in and put it on and then it would send me a separate email saying, 'well done, you've gone below your target' or whatever. Or 'you've lost this many kilos since you started tracking'."
Fitbit didn't respond to Tyla's request for comment.
Cara says tracking her intake using those apps turned the whole thing into a 'numbers game', making her see food as an 'equation'. Apps across all areas of people's personal lives have been criticised for 'gamifying' serious issues and behaviours as brands fight for attention on people's home screens.
"Your attitude to food just becomes really negative because you stop seeing it as something you can socialise over, or that nourishes you, or you enjoy and you just start seeing is as an equation," says Cara. "That can be really dangerous for someone with disordered eating."
Cara is far from alone; a 2017 study that analysed the usage of calorie-tracking apps found that 73 percent believed MyFitnessPal had contributed to their eating disorder. The figures are stark, but they raise important questions over whether enough is being done to safeguard users.
Ben Robinson, 28, was diagnosed with anorexia when he was 15 and within 10 months, he was hospitalised on the 'borderline of heart failure'.
"Calorie-counting apps are an illness's dream because it's another tool it can use to make them suffer [or] penalise themselves for what they eat," he told Tyla.
"I was going round the supermarket, scanning everything, purely because I became obsessed with it. And it wasn't helpful at all. Because I was trying to rehabilitate myself."
Ben found using an app was hindering his recovery as he felt ‘guilty’ when he didn’t use it. He claimed apps are a 'slippery slope', adding: "If I didn't have the choice of a [tracking app], then I wouldn't have been walking around supermarkets scanning foods.”
In order to recover, Ben decided to delete the app - which he credits with allowing him to cut out unhealthy behaviours and finally start moving forward.
"It's you sticking your fingers up at your illness and saying, 'I'm not going to do what you tell me and I'm going to try and get back towards something I was before this illness'. Because there is hope after the illness."
Eating disorder therapist and podcast host Harriet Frew agrees calorie-counting apps 'can add fuel to the fire', as they offer an 'easily accessible tool to exacerbate this continuous focus and preoccupation with food and eating'.
While Harriet says the apps themselves are unlikely to cause eating disorders, she claims they can worsen symptoms by ‘encouraging a focus and preoccupation on food and body image’, and people who download them with healthy intentions can quickly end up 'out of control and unhealthy'.
Nicola Davis, 26, told us her tracking app was a 'best friend to [her] anorexia' and she hasn't looked back since deleting it.
"I was just constantly checking it. It did everything my anorexia wanted it to do, which at the time, I thought was a good thing. And it felt like it was supporting me in what I wanted to happen.
"Looking back, it was a complete obsession. And it felt really, really impossible to delete the app. It took years - even when I was well into my recovery, I still had it on my phone."
Nicola also says the app didn't do enough to prevent her inputting unhealthy data.
"With the calories that I was putting in, that was 100 percent, without a doubt, very unhealthy. And there was nothing that said, the minimum for a woman your age is 'XYZ'. Even just a pop-up, like when you go on Instagram. If you search something that says, 'Are you okay?', or if you're searching for potentially triggering things.
"I think you need those tiny little barriers to put it into your mind that something isn't right. Because when you're in the midst of it, you don't realise how ill you are. I think having pop-ups like that is just an extra safety measure."
Instead, she says she was 'rewarded with a huge graph showing how much weight I'd lost'.
"The steeper the gradient, the more my anorexia would cheer me on. I would take screenshots of my graph regularly as a memento, like it was the best thing I had ever achieved in life. When I started recovery and my weight began to climb, the app was such a trigger to me as I then felt like a failure," she explained.
Tom Quinn, Director of External Affairs for Beat - the UK's leading eating disorder charity - said calorie-tracking apps can be ‘incredibly attractive’ to people with an eating disorder and that support needs to be clearly signposted.
He noted that weight or BMI are not indicative of whether someone has an eating disorder, adding: “Apps must carry out stringent health checks, including an eating disorder screening when people first join the app as well as regular check-ins."
Tyla asked all of those we spoke to what more they think app developers can do. Several urged them to implement eating disorder screening tests at the point of download within the app, signpost to eating disorder services at the point of attempting to input unhealthy data, outright prevent people from putting in unhealthy goals rather than a pop-up, and even having a daily time limit for those using it.
A statement from MyFitnessPal said: "At MyFitnessPal, we believe that food should nourish and be enjoyed, but we acknowledge that relationships with food are not always so simple. Above all, our main focus is our member’s health and we recognise that ‘healthy’ looks different for all, which is why the goals are personal to each user.
"When users download MyFitnessPal for the first time, they are encouraged to enter a series of fitness, nutrition and physical information and goals. There are many safeguards in place to protect users from unhealthy goals. For example, users are not able to set a goal of losing more than 2lbs per week, which is a guideline recommended by most health professional groups, like CDC and NIH. Women are also unable to set a goal below 1,200 calories a day and men cannot set a goal under 1,500. If calorie intake is too low, a message will pop up within the app, encouraging them to meet at least the minimum intake needed for their health.
"We worked with the National Eating Disorders Association to develop our current guidelines and FAQs that create supportive materials around eating disorders. We’d consider working with any organisation which promotes healthy living, nutrition, and wellness."
Popular app LoseIt! declined to comment.
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