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Diet and Activity Trackers: The Next Generation of Misused Tools

By Michelle May, M.D.

Fitness bands, calorie counting apps, body composition monitors, and other gadgets have brought the old diet diary, bathroom scale, and pedometer into the digital age. But are they really an improvement?

Based on my personal and professional experience, not so much. Instead, the countless devices, apps, and other tools on the market for consumers to track their food, nutrition, calories, and activity tend to keep people obsessed with what they eat and how much they exercise. That leaves less room to focus on their lives, relationships, and work. Worse, when these diet and activity trackers are misused, they contribute to guilt, disordered eating, orthorexia, compulsive exercising, and other symptoms of a natural system of consuming and using energy gone awry.

Nothing New Under the Sun

Food DiariesAs a recovered yo-yo dieter, I have vivid memories of writing down everything I ate and checking the boxes on my “Daily Tracker,” “Weekly Diary,” or “Success Journal” (depending on what year it was) for over two decades of my life. I tracked exchanges, optional calories, then points, and logged my minutes of exercise to earn sneaker stickers and extra calories. And what did it get me? A lifetime membership to go back whenever I regained the weight (and I did, many times) and disordered eating.

For some reason, I saved a box of all that stuff. Perhaps I thought I would use it again someday, but more likely, I just wanted something concrete to show for all the time, energy, and money I put into it. Proof that I really had tried.

(I can hardly believe I wrote down, “2 life savers,” yet there it is.)

Does It Make My Life Bigger or Smaller?

Using an app and/or a device strapped to your body to track your calories in and/or out may seem fun, motivating, cool, logical, or even necessary. And for some people, there’s no harm in it. But just in case, ask yourself a few questions about how you use diet and activity trackers:

  • Does my device distract me from being in the moment?
  • Has health and fitness become a contest with myself or others?
  • Am I doing all this to be good or feel good?
  • Do I think or talk frequently about eating and exercise?
  • Is “accountability” becoming more important than the experience of eating and moving mindfully?
  • Do I choose food for the numbers, not for nourishment and enjoyment?
  • Do I vacillate between tracking then ignoring everything I eat?
  • Do I track my activity to earn the right to eat?
  • Do I pay penance for eating by logging more steps?
  • Do I exercise to bump up the numbers rather than to experience my body moving?
  • Do I measure my success or self-worth by the numbers on the scale and/or my percent body fat?
  • Do I exercise even when I’m exhausted, sick, or injured?
  • Am I postponing my life until I reach some goal?
  • Is there enough space in my life for balanced self-care of my body, mind, heart, and spirit?
  • Is tracking all of these numbers making my life bigger or smaller?

You can do what you want. As for me, I’m going to eat mindfully and live vibrantly!

(Full disclosure: Of course, we have an app too! The Am I Hungry? Mindful Eating Virtual Coach app guides you through the Am I Hungry? Mindful Eating Cycle. It is a powerful tool for putting you in charge of your eating decision without having to resort to rules and restrictions.)

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About the author

Michelle May, M.D. is a recovered yo-yo dieter and the founder of the Am I Hungry?® Mindful Eating Programs and Training. She is the award-winning author of Eat What You Love, Love What You Eat: A Mindful Eating Program to Break Your Eat-Repent-Repeat Cycle , winner of seven publishing awards. She is also the author of Eat What You Love, Love What You Eat with Diabetes, Eat What You Love, Love What You Eat for Binge Eating, and Am I Hungry? Mindful Eating for Bariatric Surgery. Michelle shares her compelling message and constructive keynotes with audiences around the country, offers workplace wellness programs, and has trained and licensed hundreds of health professionals to facilitate Am I Hungry?® Mindful Eating Programs worldwide. She has been featured on Dr. Oz, the Discovery Health Channel, and Oprah Radio, and quoted in Diabetic Living, Fitness, Health, Huffington Post, Parents, Self, USA Weekend, US News & World Report, WebMD and many others. Her personal success story was published in Chicken Soup for the Dieter's Soul. Michelle cherishes her relationships with her husband, Owen and grown children, Tyler and Elyse. She regularly enjoys practicing yoga and hiking near her home in Phoenix, Arizona. She and Owen, a professional chef, share a passion for gourmet and healthful cooking, wine tasting, photography, and traveling.

4 Comments

  1. Eva Murray says:

    Thanks for this article. It’s like a breath of fresh air, a heavy weight lifted – no pun intended. I’ve been on “tracking” kinds of programs for years with moderate success. However, I feel like a prisoner of the process. The constant thinking about diet and exercise , and then writing everything down, does occupy much of my life. I sometimes still look for the magic bullet, the perfect diet. Whenever I ease up though, I’m so much happier, so much more alive. Thanks again.

  2. When will the android version of the virtual coach app be released! I so want this…I use otheres and can relate to almost every part of this post! I didnt know an app was available! Plz feel free to contact me whn released or beta ill be a tester. I believe this addition will help tremendously with the program

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