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Diet and Activity Trackers: The Next Generation of Misused Tools


By Michelle May, MD

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

As 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. 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 or a device strapped to your body to track your calories in or out may seem fun, motivating, cool, logical, or even necessary.

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 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.

Michelle May, MD is a recovered yoyo dieter and the award-winning author of Eat What You Love, Love What You Eat: How to Break Your Eat-Repent-Repeat Cycle. Download chapter one at