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A Look into Weight Loss Apps

by Holly Pratt

Most people don’t think twice about downloading apps. If it is convenient, free, and easy to navigate, there is no doubt a loyal consumer is out there somewhere. Such is the case with many weight loss apps available to download nowadays. However, in one article, “It’s Definitely Been a Journey: A Qualitative Study on How Women with Eating Disorders Use Weight Loss Apps,” the use and downloading of such apps was scrutinized. This study, conducted by researchers Eikey and Reddy, explored the relation of weight loss apps and eating disorders, not necessarily moralistically, but wholistically – revealing a complex picture of app usage in many users, particularly women’s, lives. In their publication, Eikey and Reddy researched the background of eating disorders and weight loss apps, conducted a study among 16 participants, and detailed out their findings on the use of these apps.

During the introduction of the publication, Eikey and Reddy introduced the topic of weight loss apps, the most popular being the app MyFitnessPal which is an app that “allows users to track calories, exercise, and weight, with 8.7 million users”. Most women’s motivations for using these apps are often to lose weight because of dissatisfaction with their bodies. This unhappiness is often driven by the ideals portrayed by the media and prolonged by technology. Eikey and Reddy, while actively admitting much of the obsession with weight and size comes from social media, were surprised at the lack of study into how weight loss apps, specifically, contribute to or exacerbate eating disorders.

The researchers decided to conduct a study that would look at weight loss apps as both positive and negative but provide a perspective on how women use these apps and how that usage changes over time. In their study, 16 participants took part, all of which “(1) had to use/have used weight loss apps, (2) be an 18-25 year old woman, and (3) have/had an eating disorder…”. They conducted data collection sessions with the participants which included a survey, a think-aloud exercise, and a semi-structured interview. In their findings, they found that there were two sides to weight apps, “troubling the binary view of technology,” and that on one hand, the apps seemed to exacerbate eating disorders and on the other hand were helpful in aiding recovery from eating disorders.

They included many stories from participants which displayed a variety of shared problems. Many users would manipulate the app to lose weight and avoid negative emotions. For example, a couple of participants said on some days they would simply just not log certain foods, so they didn’t have to see the “damage.” Other users felt rewarded for staying under their daily calorie allotment and would engage in unhealthy behaviors, such as over-exercising and under-eating, in order to achieve this feat. Still other users found that they began to obsessively log foods (with one user logging a half a calorie communion wafer), restrict, and begin to have an acute, oftentimes neurotic, awareness of numbers and calories.

Eikey and Reddy also pointed out that some users were able to add in calories and pay more attention to nutrition, focusing on macros and recovering by learning what to eat. Many users, they reported, “stopped using weight loss apps at least for some period of time because they thought it would help with recovery”. They also detailed out, however, that although a number of users would take a break, many of them began using weight loss apps again in order to reach their recovery goals. In the end, Eikey and Reddy outlined some ways in which weight loss apps might have a better design that isn’t so triggering and agreed that a move away from such apps as the ultimate marker of health would be beneficial.

As an avid user of MyFitnessPal myself for 3-4 years as well as a recovered anorexic and orthorexic, I am saddened to realize the number of users for MyFitnessPal is so high – 8.7 million – as presented in the publication. One can only imagine how many young girls are being subjected to many of the troubling, and oftentimes life-long, habits the participants as well as myself were introduced to via weight loss apps. Conducting research on the effect of weight loss apps is an important thing, and as Eikey and Reddy pointed out, something not common in comparison to the studies conducted on the effects of social media in general. If a publication as detailed as this was presented to me when my own food tracking obsession first began, I wonder how my life and habits would’ve changed…or at the very least been put into question.

I agree with Eikey and Reddy’s statement that “weight loss apps may unintentionally promote unhealthy habits or lead to negative emotions” and especially their commentary on the fact that the visuals shown to the user indicating whether or not they went over or are under their calorie allotment need to be more nuanced and explored. In the height of my eating disorder, eating fewer calories than I was allotted became somewhat of a challenge. How could I manipulate my food to get to the lowest possible point? How could I exercise enough to “delete” some of the food I had eaten? One thing that particularly struck me was reading about one such participant’s manipulation of the app to lose weight. In the date collection session, she “talked about how she reported her activity as ‘sedentary’ even though she was really active so that she would lose more weight quickly”. I did that as well, and upon further reflection, it is insane that a user feels he/she must lie to an app to get the result they need.

I also agree with the researchers’ findings that weight loss apps “create a need to be exact and an acute awareness of numbers,” as well as again, their idea to combat such problems with a push towards less “self-entering” and a more synchronized way to include what a user needs without giving them the specific qualification. During my eating disorder, I knew the calories AND macronutrients of almost every food regularly eaten. There was a time during. High school where another student was making her friend guess how much protein she thought was in a serving of pasta. I chimed in and told her it was 7 grams. Sure, enough it was. They were both impressed, but I was drowning in obsessive behavior where numbers meant the world and food was a way to reach the body image I wanted. As one of the participants said, “You become obsessed with food, you look at food differently. Like now when I look at food, I see that it's protein, that’s fat, that’s carbs instead of like that’s a chicken breast, that’s peanut butter, that’s a piece of bread…It’s a number game basically”.

In presenting their research, Eikey and Reddy have made an important step in the hopefully, more advanced, study into the effect weight loss apps have on eating disorders and their usage as a whole. While I agree that these apps can have both a positive and negative impact, the negative far outweighs the positive. With increasing technology, phones are available for girls and boys at a much younger age…and with that comes the ability to download any app he or she would like. It’s a dangerous game out there and the more awareness created the better. Food should be enjoyable and make you feel good, NOT make you feel guilty.

Eikey, Elizabeth V., and Madhu C. Reddy. "‘It's Definitely Been a Journey’: A Qualitative Study

on How Women with Eating Disorders Use Weight Loss Apps." Proceedings of the 2017 CHI conference on human factors in computing systems, 2017, pp. 642-654, https://dl.acm.org/doi/pdf/10.1145/3025453.3025591, Accessed 18 Jan. 2022.


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