My Fitness Pal and disordered eating

If you’re unfamiliar with My Fitness Pal (MFP), it’s the most well-known calorie tracking app. If you asked 100 people about calorie counting, 99 people would likely tell you about MFP. This app has been around for the last 10-15 years, and often it’s the first “diet thing” people do.

In this article, I’m going to give an overview of what MFP is and some of the sneaky things it does. I’ve also included my personal and professional experience with MFP. I’ll also give you a rundown on the research, and then give you my three tips to break up with MFP.

Sounds great, right? Let’s get into it.

What is My Fitness Pal?

MFP has a 4.7 star rating on the Apple Store, and 200 million users. The exact numbers of people who actually use the app are not known. But we can hazard a guess that a much smaller amount of people log on it everyday. If you’re someone who’s used MFP, you might have used it every single day or you might log when you’re having a “good” day. It’s also not uncommon to re download it when you go on a new diet or health kick.

An alluring part of MFP is the notification you get when you press “done for the day.” It says: if everyday were like today you would weight xxx in 8 weeks. I don’t know about you, but that makes me feel a little bit…. Strange. How could everyday be the same!? Especially when most people’s experience with MFP is pretty miserable most of the time. You can’t do it everyday!

If you’re someone who holds onto that notification – and hey, I’ve been there to! It’s pretty exciting, right? If only you could hold on and do this everyday… The allure of losing weight is powerful. You might also feel quite bummed when you get that notification. Maybe you’re miserable with tracking, and you’re told in 8 weeks you won’t even be close to your goal weight. That is really disheartening.

Another thing about MFP that keeps people going back for more is the elusive “streak.” I’ve worked with so many people who could never let their streak laps. But when it eventually lapsed, they went on a spiral to make up for it.

Does My Fitness Pal cause eating disorders?

Eating disorders are complex mental health conditions. Yet there are traits of people who develop eating disorders that MFP seems to manipulate. These include perfectionism, all or nothing thinking, rigidity, and low flexibility. MFP, and tracking food intake outwit an app, causes these traits to thrive. So, if you’re someone who feels entranced with MFP- the developers knew that you would be. And you’re completely not alone.

My personal experience with MFP

I remember when I was 14, me and a bunch of friends at school downloaded the app. We all linked up together to see what each other had eaten. You could also see when they added their weight after their weekly weigh-in. As you can imagine, this become pretty toxic fast.

We started comparing our calories with others. Not just that, we also banded together for motivation to not eat unhealthy or high calorie food. We had a group chat and had daily check-ins to make sure we weren’t going “off plan.”

We didn’t even have a plan! We were a bunch of 14 year olds who had downloaded an app. And yet for so many of that group, it was a slippery slope into eating disorders and disordered eating.

I’m not saying that using MFP caused my groups eating disorders. Eating disorders are complex, so they aren’t caused by clicking download on an app. But this app gave a focus on food that lead to obsession, restriction, comparisons, and making up for food.

I can’t remember exactly what I had enough of MFP. But I know that I eventually hated it. After around 8 years, I could no longer deal with the app. I could no longer crunch numbers. I hated seeing my weight record going up every time I re-downloaded it.

But the biggest reason I stopped tracking my food was because I didn’t like what it did to my brain. Whenever I used MFP, I felt like my brain was on fire. I needed to get away from it. So I did. Later on in this blog I will let you know my top tips to break the My Fitness Pal addiction.

The Research: Calorie tracking and eating disorders

I know that “research” sounds super boring and dry. And sometimes it is. But it’s important for you to know the official science about MFP, and calorie counting in general.

The first thing to note is a 2021 research study looked at how MFP had affected those with eating disorders. 73% of the 125 people interviewed said MFP contributed to their eating disorder. And 30% said that the app very much contributed to their eating disorder developing (1). It’s inaccurate to say calorie tracking causes eating disorders. But this certainly shows a link.

A randomized controlled trial in 2021 took 200 college aged women to see how MFP would effect them. Researchers wanted to study their mental health and health behaviours (2). Health behaviours include things like food intake, vegetable intake, and exercise levels. They found that MFP did not result in any impact on either of these. But there’s a huge but here.

The researchers don’t mention is that there was no follow-up past 1 month. I don’t know if these researchers have worked with people who have used MFP. But it takes longer than 1 month for the impact to show. Like I said in the beginning of this blog, MFP is usually one of the first “diet things” a person does. And this over time spirals into new behaviours and thoughts about food.

The researchers concluded that MFP had no impact on the womens’ health, but there was interesting results. Three key themes were found. The three themes were:

1. Feelings:

  • The women felt negative about their weight
  • They felt like their food intake was poor quality
  • They felt concerned about their body shape and size

2. Thoughts:

  • They were hyper-aware of food choices
  • They felt like they should exercise more due to make up for food

3. Behaviors:

  • Increased self-monitoring
  • Decreased consumption of perceived unhealthy foods
  • Increased intake of perceived healthy foods

You might be thinking “great! That means they were eating healthier. But, people who only eat healthy when they’re tracking usually end up falling off the wagon.

How do you feel about My Fitness Pal?

Now that we’ve looked at some of the key research, I’m wondering how you feel about MFP?

Does it make you feel positive, negative, more focused on your food intake?

Do you think it contributed to how you feel about food now? Are you now aware of calorie numbers?

Do you feel like your calorie intake should be what MFP told you years ago?

Like the women in the 2021 study, you might have found it helpful to be more aware of your food intake. But, I bet that if these women were followed-up with after a few years, many would have said MFP did more harm than good.

On that note, there is research that backs this up!

As far back as 1998, research has shown that monitoring food intake may increase risk of eating disorder development (2). It also increases the pressure someone feels to meet cultural body ideals, and increases self-criticism of diet quality and quantity. (1).

There’s lots of ways of monitoring your food intake – you could be using MFP. Or pen and paper with a calculator and food labels. You might be estimating/calculating intakes in your head at the end of the day (“urgh was this a good day? Let me count” is something my clients tell me they do.)

Ultimately, these things are the same. They’re just a different method of doing it.

Apparently, MFP claims they “intervene” if they suspect a user has an eating disorder. They have reportedly banned and deleted some users’ accounts. And not shown weight loss predictions, and removed calorie counts from foods. MFP has even gone as far to see it “helps people recover from eating disorders” – wow, give me strength. Don’t give weight watchers any more marketing ideas (3).

Round up: what’s really the problem with My Fitness Pal?

I’ve given quite a lot of information about MFP, so let’s summarise.

I want to start this section by saying; if you genuinely feel good using MFP then I’m not here to stop you using it. If you can truly say that MFP benefits your life, and doesn’t cause any negative side-effects- then great.

But from the 100s of people I’ve helped over the years, my own personal experience, and the research, we know that MFP:

  • Causes you to hyper-focus on what you eat
  • If you don’t use the app fully, it feels like you’re sneaking around… On your phone
  • People who track their food intake can have benefits in the very short term. Such as more awareness of what they eat. But, long-term, tracking food can increase the likelihood of disordered eating and disliking your body.
  • Here’s the kicker: calorie counts can be pretty inaccurate. I have a blog here all about calorie counting. The bottom line is that nutrition labels (e.g. calories, carbohydrates, fibre, protein) are, by law, allowed to be 20% inaccurate.
  • MFP is an external tool that dictates what, when, and how much you “should” eat. Whilst you are allowed to go against it’s suggested calorie intake, it does feel like you’re breaking a rule. Now imagine that happens everyday, you’re going to feel pretty terrible around food!
  • You spend hours punching in what you eat. Imagine what you could do with that time!
  • MFP, without meaning to, makes you save calories for the evening. It puts you into a sort of scarcity mindset- you want to save as much as you can in case you want to snack/have a treat. And I bet when you’re tracking on MFP, you always want more food at night, right?
  • Ultimately tracking calories takes hours and hours away from living your life. You can’t/shoudn’t eat impromptu slice of cake, glass of wine with friends, or try your grandma’s baking.

How to stop being obsessed with My Fitness Pal

To stop feeling like you need to track what you eat, ultimately you need to rebuild trust with food and your body. I know “rebuild trust” sounds a bit airy-fairy, but actually there’s solid science behind this.

Your brain won’t trust you around food until it knows you’re done restricting, going on and off new diets, or going on new lifestyle kicks.

So here are my four top tips to stop being obsessed with My Fitness Pal….

1. Eat more foods that you can’t find on MFP.

How about making more homemade meals and snacks? Like soups, stews, cake, dips.

2. Guess how many calories in the meal, rather than adding them in the app.

I know this is easier said than done. It’s not as simple as just not thinking about it. But over time this will break the habit, and make your brain realize it doesn’t need to know exact calories.

3. Eat foods that you don’t know what’s in it.

Could you get your parent, loved one, or friend to cook for you? Or to add in an ingredients so you have no clue the calories? This is SO scary at first. Which is why you might need some professional help. You can reach out to me here if you think you need 1-1 support.

4. Replace crunching numbers with another activity.

If you’ve been inputting what you eat on MFP for a while, it’s now like an ingrained habit. So to kick the habit, you need to replace it with something else. If all of a sudden just stopped adding what you eat to the app, you will probably not be able to stop thinking about it.

Do you add what you eat before or after eating? Before or after cooking a meal? Do you add everything you eat at the end of the day? Or maybe you plan what to eat the night before or in the morning.

Whenever you add food to MFP, decide what you’re going to do at the time instead.

Some of the things my clients have switched to are:

  • Playing with their cat or dog instead. I know my cat would love to chase her teaser (the toys on a stick with a bird or something attached) multiple times a day. Win win!
  • Add up what’s on your plate instead of the calories, protein, carbs, etc. Instead, add up taste, texture, breaking food rules, overcoming buzz foods, and the experience of eating. Does this feel more helpful?
  • Have a playlist of songs you really enjoy, that you can really focus to and listen to

If you would like more tips and advice on how to stop counting calories, I have another blog post right here.

As someone who was obsessed with My Fitness Pal (I had it on my phone for at least 10 years). I’m now so happy that I’ve helped 100s of people to quit calorie counting for good…. You also deserve more than to be be tied to an app.

I hope this blog has been helpful. I would love to hear how you get on.

So make sure to stay in touch on Instagram, @ease_nutritiontherapy

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