As smartphone use becomes more and more prevalent in our culture, growing numbers of people are using health-tracking apps. Here are the basics on health-tracking apps and how they might relate to disordered eating.

What are health-tracking apps?

Health-tracking apps are a group of digital tools designed to help individuals track, understand, and often alter certain aspects of their behavior. Calorie-counting apps are especially common, and many apps also allow users to track other health-related factors like exercise, steps, water intake, and meal planning. These apps have a variety of functions, from simple logs of the user’s behavior to advanced analytics showing changes and trends over time. For example, someone trying to eat more protein might log nutrition information into an app as a way to see progress toward that goal, and the app might also send reminders to keep up the effort.

How are health-tracking apps related to disordered eating?

While these apps may be helpful for many users, there’s also a growing body of research suggesting that using them might correlate to negative outcomes for people who experience disordered eating.

For one thing, research has long shown that dieting of any kind is a risk factor associated with developing an eating disorder. Since health-tracking apps often help users manage a diet, it’s possible that they might make people who are already at risk of having an eating disorder more likely to develop symptoms. Indeed, a number of eating disorder patients and experts in the field report that counting calories and other statistics (data like steps, fat grams etc) in the way the apps encourage makes it harder to manage symptoms.

Some recent studies also back up this anecdotal evidence. One small study in Singapore found that app use in general was correlated with symptoms of disordered eating, and the correlation was even stronger for apps related to health and fitness. A larger study of college students in the United States reached a similar conclusion: students who reported using calorie-counting apps were more likely to be concerned about their eating habits and to show other common symptoms of disordered eating.

One study focused specifically on American college students with diagnosed eating disorders, and its results were even more striking. That study found that out of more than 100 students surveyed, about 75% reported using the popular calorie-counting app My Fitness Pal. What’s more, out of those users, 73% said that the app contributed in some way to their eating disorders. The researchers also found that these users did indeed show symptoms of eating disorders.

Should people with eating disorders or disordered eating avoid health-tracking apps?

The body of research on this issue is still small, so we can’t yet know for sure whether these apps are likely to cause or exacerbate symptoms of eating disorders and disordered eating. Nonetheless, the available anecdotal and scientific evidence suggests that people who have eating disorders or who are prone to disordered eating should proceed with caution when it comes to health-tracking apps. If you do decide to use a health-tracking app, be sure to stay aware of its impact on your behavior and, if you can, discuss your usage with a trusted healthcare provider.

Are there apps out there that are known to be helpful to people with eating disorders?

At Columbus Park, we regularly advise our clients to track eating behavior (and associated thoughts and feelings) via Recovery Record. Recovery Record is an engaging and easy to use smartphone app that supports users in monitoring their eating behavior.  For app users in treatment, the app can connect with the user’s provider so the provider can not only view their patient’s record but they can even communicate through the app to offer real time feedback and support (like a thumbs up!).  The app has additional functionality such as prompts for accessing coping skills, ED assessments, even motivational or encouraging statements on command.

Onward

As technology advances, there’s incredible potential for the development of more tools to support people in pursuing health, perhaps down the road, with entire interventions that delivered through an electronic device.  But for now, the moral of the story is that one should be mindful of how technology – on so many levels – may both help and harm your health efforts.  Always best to proceed with caution!