The beer garden was full of chatter and the air was thick with the smell of sunscreen. A barbecue sizzled in the corner, feeding hungry pub-goers who'd come to soak up the warm weather after weeks of being stuck inside. At our table, my friends and I surveyed the menu through the lenses of our oversized sunglasses. The waitress came to take our order and they all eagerly gave their requests. I could see them waiting for me to give my own. As my eyes flitted across the page from the veggie burger to the halloumi kebab, I mentally tallied up the calories. I was hungry, but all I could think about was how many calories I had left for the day. 'Just the sweet potato fries for me, please.'
I'd only started using my Fitbit a couple of months before that hot, sunny day. Like many people, I'd felt the strain on my skinny jeans after moving my body less and eating more during lockdown. So, when the outside world started opening up again, I was keen to make a change in my lifestyle and thought being able to track my fitness journey would be the perfect motivator.
But, it didn't take long until the numbers on that small screen became more of a restriction than lockdown itself. Quickly I found I was tracking every mouthful, cancelling dinner dates with friends to stay within my calorie 'allowance' or going out for yet another walk if I ate 'too much' that day. Physically I was in great shape, but I couldn't say the same for my mental wellbeing. That's when I started to question: When does fitness tracking go too far?
As the first month of a fresh year comes to a close, the adverts encouraging those 'new year, new me' diets fade away, replaced by the 'get fit for summer' taglines we've come to accept as normal in the lead up to the warmer months. It's no wonder then, that more and more of us are opting to use fitness tracking apps like MyFitnessPal or wearables such as Fitbit and Apple Watch to help us check-in with our fitness journey. In fact, YouGov recently found that 34% of Brits aged 25-49 currently use a fitness tracker, a figure that has increased from 23% in the last three years alone.
The many benefits of using a fitness tracker, which include improved heart health and better sleep, are undeniably alluring – yet, in some cases, trackers are doing "more harm than good", particularly when it comes to how they can "trigger, maintain or exacerbate eating disorder symptomatology," as this 2017 investigation into the link between calorie counting and disordered eating suggests. "Fitness trackers can encourage a fixation on exercise and numbers, which can be very harmful to people with or vulnerable to eating disorders," explains Martha Williams, clinical advice coordinator at eating disorder charity Beat.
It's an experience that 29-year-old TV producer Charlotte, who started using MyFitnessPal when she was just 18-years-old, relates to. "I never had a particularly great relationship with my body, so I was always finding ways to try and lose weight quicker to make myself feel better about my body," she tells Cosmopolitan UK. "When I downloaded the app, I was just looking for a place to track my calories, but until I started using it, I didn't realise how in-depth it could go."
In some cases, trackers are doing "more harm than good"
For Charlotte, what started out as an educational tool, quickly turned into an obsession she struggled to control. "You enter your weight onto MyFitnessPal and then it calculates how many calories you should be eating per day depending on how much weight you want to lose," she recalls. "I became obsessed with how many calories I could – or couldn’t – have. On the app it shows a green line when you’re under your calorie intake and a red line when you’re over it. Naturally, I just saw red as being a bad thing. It’s subconscious, like traffic lights – green is go and red means stop."
Use of colours within apps like fitness trackers isn't new, and is something which researcher Elizabeth V. Eikey, who's investigated how women with eating disorders use weight loss apps, has seen the impact of before. "If we think about some everyday contexts where green and red are used, then we could see how diet and fitness trackers could implement colour choices based on societal connotations," Eikey explains. "In my research, there have been some design features that participants have consistently called out, such as the colours used to visualise being under and exceeding one's calorie budget, leading to extreme feelings of guilt and shame."
As Charlotte recalls, "Some days, I would have used up all of my calorie allowance, but I would still be so hungry. All I could think about was the red line telling me I was over my intake though, so I would starve myself."
It's worth noting however that currently on MyFitnessPal, a warning message will flash up if a user inputs less than 1200 calories per day (for women) – although it's unclear how long this feature has been in place, or how effective it is at deterring users from under-eating.
While not everyone who uses a fitness tracker will develop an unhealthy relationship with eating or exercising, Eikey notes that "even if a person doesn't meet the 'threshold' for a clinical eating disorder, that doesn't mean that they never experience negative emotions related to their body and food. Everyone has mental health, and it fluctuates."
With that in mind, if the opportunity for us to have a moment of doubt when it comes to our relationship with our bodies could present itself at anytime, Elizabeth suggests that the point at which we can find ourselves taking tracking too far is blurred – given that our trackers come with us everywhere, at all times. "Through a device (like a smartphone), which many of us carry everywhere we go, these apps allow on-demand access to nutrition information and calorie counts, transforming what we track into instant visualisations that denote value (i.e. this is good or bad)," she says, adding that this "encourages consistent logging."
Tracking can be triggering
"As well as calories, MyFitnessPal also calculates your saturated fats, carbs, etc," Charlotte points out. "But actually, unless you’re a nutritionist, it’s really hard to eat within these limits or even understand what any of this stuff means in terms of the food that’s on your plate."
Without proper guidance on the nutritional limits she was confronted with every time she opened the app, Charlotte admits she often felt compelled to "punish" herself by "restricting" what she ate. Sadly, she's not alone.
"Unless you’re a nutritionist, it’s really hard to eat within the limits."
"At first I was really excited to be in the know about how effective my workouts were, how many steps I was taking per day, how many calories I was consuming," 28-year-old performing arts teacher Joanne says of the reason she started using Fitbit. "My tracker initially gave me a target of 10,000 steps per day, but encouraged me to be 'super active' by going for 12,000," the teacher recalls. "But, I felt the need to go above and beyond this, and set myself a target of 17,000 steps a day. Soon enough I was obsessing over it, and on days where I had gone over my calories I would even make myself sick."
Eikey stresses that this isn't uncommon, noting that it's a pattern she's come across in her own research. "I found that users with eating disorders often talked about competing with themselves," she points out. "So [they were] trying to eat less than they did the day before, for instance. Some users talked about how it felt like a game to 'beat' themselves."Getty Images
Behaviour like this, Charlotte highlights, is easy to fall into and hard to escape. Like Joanne, she turned to unhealthy methods of "compensating" for going over her calorie allowance. "I became obsessed with exercising and getting more steps in, because then you’d get more calories," she recalls. "But this in itself became an issue. 'Well, I’ve just burned those calories, why would I put them back into my body?' I'd tell myself. As far as the app goes, this was seen as something positive as it meant I was in the green. The app rewards you for movement, but it doesn’t take into account whether you’ve rewarded yourself by actually nourishing or feeding your body."
Are fitness trackers the problem?
Not everyone who puts on a Fitbit or an Apple Watch will have the same experience. In fact, a 2016 survey by TCS found that fitness trackers are "helping to make Britain healthier and more active" and 93% of people who took part in the survey said that using fitness technology led to a change in their health and fitness behaviour, with 59% saying their fitness tracker "motivates" them.
Body confidence blogger Meg Boggs thinks the way society has traditionally favoured thin-bodied people is more to blame than individual fitness tracking apps. She recalls how the "praise" she received for weight loss at the start of her own fitness journey often "went away" when her weight stayed the same, leaving her with "disordered habits".
In an effort to change this, Meg says she took a few years off from wearing fitness trackers, but has since started using a Fitbit again and is making an effort to focus more on what the device can do for her overall wellbeing, rather than weight loss. "Now, I’m using my Fitbit for the support and insights it provides for my long-term holistic health and wellness goals," she points out. "I feel like it's just a tool now rather than this make-or-break piece of my day. I wear it and check-in with my health stats most days, but I’m at peace during the days I don’t. It’s a really nice feeling."
For Charlotte and Joanne, the long-term impacts of fitness tracking haven't been so easy to shake, with both admitting they still have intrusive thoughts when it comes to tracking, and calories in particular. "I know exactly how much a large spoon of rice has in terms of calories," says Joanne. "I know what the lowest calorie meal deal is, and I know what I 'should' or 'shouldn't' be eating in restaurants. This quite often crosses my mind."
Ultimately though, all three women – and myself – agree that shifting their mindset when it comes to fitness has been essential to their recovery.
"I feel as though these behaviours are ingrained in me, I don’t think I’ll ever stop having those thoughts, but the most important thing is that I’m able to continue not acting on them," says Charlotte. "Now, even if I eat something that I know has a lot of calories in it, I won’t punish myself by over-exercising or starving myself the next day. There was a time in my life where I thought I’d never be able to eat a croissant again. Now I’m able to acknowledge the thought in my head that’s telling me how many calories are in this, and just eat the croissant anyway."
"There was a time in my life where I thought I’d never be able to eat a croissant again"
Although it's not easy letting go of calories entirely, I too made the conscious decision to no longer restrict what I eat. Not long after that sunny day in the beer garden, I realised that the moments I was missing out on – bottomless brunches with my pals and ice creams at the beach – were more important than the calories I was counting. Fitting into a smaller pair of pants just wasn't worth trading those pockets of happiness.
As Meg puts it: "The best thing we can do when starting to wear a fitness tracker, or even just deciding to make health a priority, is to have an awareness around what we want out of this? Is it possible for us to answer this without focusing on changes to our appearance?
"The way we’re targeted by the diet and fitness industry to 'do and eat this so you look like this' is harmful and it is not our fault by any means for falling victim to these marketing tactics. But that doesn’t mean making our health a priority has to focus on appearance and shrinking our bodies. We get the choice to decide what feels best for us."
When approached by Cosmopolitan UK about the potential risks associated with fitness trackers and disordered eating, Apple Watch and Fitbit declined to comment, while MyFitnessPal did not respond.
Beat is the UK's leading charity dedicated to helping people with eating disorders. If you or someone you know is struggling and want to seek help, call their helpline on 0808 801 0677 or visit their website for more details.Related StoryIs BMI doing more harm than good?Related StoryWhen anorexia threatens your ability to have kidsJade BiggsJade Biggs (she/her) is Cosmopolitan UK's Features Writer covering everything from breaking news to the latest health and fitness trends taking over your Instagram feed, as well as first-person features and investigative long-reads. This content is created and maintained by a third party, and imported onto this page to help users provide their email addresses. You may be able to find more information about this and similar content at piano.io