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App-orexia: Can Phone Apps Contribute to Eating Disorders?

David Mittleman

Forgot to turn the lights off in your home? There’s an app to turn them off even if your aren’t there. Need to find a restaurant to eat at in an unfamiliar town? There’s an app for that too. While apps might seem extremely useful, at least one has the potential to do harm—at least that’s according to doctors who specialize in eating disorder treatment and therapy.

According to Dr. Harry Brandt, director of the Center for Eating Disorders at Sheppard Pratt in Towson, MD, smartphone applications can fuel eating disorders by providing users with a litany of information about restaurants and the nutritional value of their foods. Obviously, this can be a useful tool for people who want to watch their diets to lose weight or simply make healthier food choices, but for eating disordered individuals, it can mean the difference between life and death. Specifically, because individuals with eating disorders exhibit a combination of personality traits that fuel their eating disordered behavior, apps provide the perfect opportunity to manifest those behaviors. For example, counting every calories or refusing to eat because of the nutritional content of available foods allows an eating disordered person to maintain their personality predispositions to obsession and perfectionism. Additionally, apps that literally monitor weight loss and calorie-counting may push vulnerable teenagers or young adults over the edge—turning their “weight loss” plan into unhealthy behaviors like anoxeria or bulimia.

Nevertheless, self-monitoring is still one of the most important aspects of successful and maintained weight loss. In fact, the reason most people can’t keep the weight off, even after losing it, is because they stop tracking their food intake or exercise levels. As a result, there are two conflicting messages in the human nutrition field: one that says you shouldn’t be rigidly and compulsively monitoring nutritional intake and another that says you should be monitoring everything you put in your mouth. Maybe the answer lies somewhere in-between those two extremes.


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