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The Harm in Nutrition Apps

If a person uses a calorie counting app to be healthy, is there any downside?

The other day, I stumbled across a mention of a new calorie counter app that promises to completely balance your eating habits. This app isn’t unique on the market––there are dozens, if not hundreds, like it. There are apps that focus on the fat content of entrees in restaurants, those that help you determine how many calories you’ve burned that day, and ones that claim to be able to break down your meal into percentages of daily required intake, grams, and serving sizes based on a picture you take on your cell phone camera. Most people know that technology like this is more about the promise than the delivery, and that such programs are unlikely to be the sole catalyst for major habitual change, but that overall, they aren’t terribly consequential. But I would like to suggest that these “calorie counters” bring us culturally further away from the idea of health, in a nutritional and an emotional-relational sense. Hear me out:

Perhaps as a former anorexic, I am extra sensitive to the word “healthy,” but it does seem that society these days believes that “healthy” means paying an absurd amount of attention to the things that we consume, the paces we walk, and the calories we burn. I am not, of course, advocating shoveling food into your mouth without glancing down to see what it is, but imagining that you can, under any circumstances, control and monitor what you eat down to the very last kcal is, by very definition, unhealthy. It doesn’t matter if all your app registers is kale and kombucha; the very fact that you devote that much time to deciphering your nutritional intake, especially (but not exclusively) if you’re within a normal weight range, renders any numbers the app may spit back at you irrelevant. As for apps that claim to be able to tell you what is in a meal made at a restaurant, it’s important to take into consideration here that this is certainly impossible to calculate. Let’s say you order chicken Milanese, a traditional dish consisting of chicken breast dredged in breadcrumbs and topped with arugula. Sometimes the dish includes an onion, and sometimes cheese, but for the sake of argument, let’s say it’s very basic: chicken with breadcrumbs and arugula and little dressing. But a little is how much, exactly? A half-cup? A cup? Is it made with low-fat oil? Was the chicken baked, or sautéed in a pan? How many ounces is it? If you happen to be using one of these apps, how will you input the information? Guess as to the weight of the breast, or ask the waitress for a small food scale, and endure (I hope, at least) a withering look in return? At that point, you––regardless of your girth––may as well be me, or one of my eating disordered compatriots from hospitals gone by, because the behavior is almost identical.

What is healthy, then? Unfortunately, it is something you can’t download for free on iTunes. Healthy is, quite simply, learning what feels good to your body and what doesn’t. It’s about being rigorous in taking stock of your satiety, and noticing when you’ve eaten past the point of comfort, and then using those experiences to inform your eating habits. Oftentimes, the process of discovering health has something like a pendulum effect: one day you might eat a little too much, another a bit too little. It may take months or even years to figure it out, and even then, something will come up that will throw a wrench in your whole meatless-Monday-vegan-until-6-juice-cleanse plan. But that’s okay, too, because sometimes being healthy is about not caring so much what’s on your plate and instead paying attention to the person you’re eating with. In short, the definition of “healthy” is way more intuitive and personal and big-picture than it is algorithmic.

Throughout treatment for my eating disorder, psychologists and other care providers would always say, “Eating disorders aren’t really about the food.” It’s the kind of platitude that most sick people brush off as optimistic therapeutic dreck. But once one becomes more distanced from illness, one realizes the metaphorical aspect is the most meaningful thing about it. Yes, of course we want to make sure that everything, down to each grain of rice, is accounted for, with all its existential implications. But surely we must understand that no matter how hard we clench our fists, we simply cannot reign over everything, and that oftentimes the best thing we can do is just let go.


About the Author

Kelsey Osgood

Kelsey Osgood is the author of How to Disappear Completely. Her essays have appeared in New York and The New Yorker's Culture Desk blog.