We’re about to enter the time of the year when people begin to become obsessed with obtaining what society has deemed the ‘perfect’ body in time for summer days at the beach. This obsession has now become even easier to maintain. Calorie, macro and exercise tracking apps are more popular than ever and taking over our smartphones, and our lives. What’s worse is impressionable kids and teenagers have access to them, and are being affected by their impact.
Counting macros means to count your macronutrients. Macronutrients are what make up the caloric content of a food, so it goes even deeper than just calorie counting. The three categories of macronutrients are carbohydrates, fat, and protein.
The curiosity to explore this subject came about after seeing how popular calorie counting apps and culture had become amongst people my age. I wanted to try it for myself, so a friend and I both downloaded the app Lifesum to see what it was like. The app asks you to enter your gender, age, height, weight, and goal weight when you first download it. To test their limits, my friend put her age in as 14, and got exactly the same result as me; a daily calorie goal that would make her lose weight. After only a week of using the app, we both admitted that we had become pretty obsessed. Noting what we had for breakfast, lunch and dinner and being able to scan the barcode of items, so the app can register the calorie content automatically, became a part of our routine.
I have since deleted the app for the sake of my sanity, but can admit that I started to let it govern my daily routine. A common outcome from obsessive behavior towards food consumption is the development of eating disorders, or disordered eating habits. A 2015 report commissioned by the charity Beat estimates more than 725,000 people in the UK are affected by an eating disorder. Statistics from the NHS show around 1 in 250 women and 1 in 2,000 men will experience anorexia nervosa at some point.
Many people with disordered eating issues find recovery the hardest part of getting back to ‘normal’. It has proven to be a very difficult cycle to break. Sarah*, 22, knows that all too well, having spent years struggling with her eating disorder. “My relationship with food, calories and macro counting still has complete control over my life” she told me. “I have definitely improved over time, but spending five years of my teenage life obsessing over the nutritional content of food means I can still recall the calorie content of nearly every food under the sun.” At the age of 15, Sarah realised she wanted to make a change. “I had always been overweight. By the time I reached 15, all my friends were slim and wearing bikinis on the beach whilst I felt hideous and left out. When they started getting male attention, it confirmed that I wanted to change.”
Sarah got to a healthy weight through changing her diet and exercising, but once she reached her goal, she was petrified of gaining it all back. “I had a ridiculous fear of gaining weight again. I had found the app MyFitnessPal great during my initial weight loss, but when I reached my lowest weight, it became more of an obsession” she told me. “I was in competition with myself to lower my calorie intake every day, and saw it as the only way to control myself from gaining weight again.” Sarah’s obsession started to take over her personal life. Her fear of not knowing how many calories she was consuming made going out for dinner and drinks with friends near impossible. After two years of losing weight and tracking her food intake, Sarah developed anorexia. “I’ve been lucky to have always been surrounded by understanding and supportive family and friends. After I’d gotten the help from my medical team, I fell into a cycle of binge eating, because my brain was unable to regulate the hormones that tell you you’re full after I had starved my body for so long.” Sarah went from six stone to 16 stone in a year and a half, which she says demonstrated the extent of damage she had caused to her body.
Sarah is still rebuilding her relationship with food, and now realises that food and diet should not cause her the anxiety it does. “The most important thing in being healthy is balance. Never forget your self worth and love your body, because being healthy is not all about how you look, it’s about how you feel.”
Chris Sandley is a qualified nutritionist based in the UK, and runs his own nutrition and health business ‘Seven Health’. Originally from Sydney, Australia, Chris moved to London after he graduated from university. He studied for three years at the College of Naturopathic Medicine and received a diploma in Nutritional Therapy. “Over the years I’ve worked with a lot of women in particular who dieted a lot in their teens, and a lot of my clients have suffered from eating disorders in the past” he said. “For some people, apps like MyFitnessPal do work very well, as it’s good to track your information. The main issue with apps like that is that they are nothing more than a computer. If you tell it you’re 14 stone and want to be 10 stone in a few months, it’ll calculate how little calories you need to eat to achieve that goal. There’s nothing in its programming that acts as a warning to tell you it’s not healthy or doable.”
Chris’ work revolves around better understanding your body and becoming healthier, rather than focusing on losing weight. “I do not advocate anyone of any age actively losing weight, because that is how people start to associate being healthy with weighing less” he told me. “The body can only do so much with the resources you give it, so if you are under eating and over exercising, areas of your body will shut down. Women’s menstrual cycle can stop, the digestion system could shut down, and your mental health can take a serious hit.” Chris looks at calorie and macro counting as an absolute last resort with his clients, as he doesn’t see it as the main benefactor in becoming healthier. When it comes to advice for parents regarding how to make sure their child has a healthy lifestyle and relationship with food and exercise, Chris had a very strong message. “The biggest thing is to not comment on their weight. The more it is commented on, the more likely the child is to become dissatisfied with their body” he told me. “The best thing to do is to make healthy food a normal choice; to make exercise fun and a part of their routine rather than a chore. They shouldn’t be counting calories or macros; they should be living a healthy balanced life.”
If you have been affected by anything mentioned in this piece, or feel you yourself need help regarding the topic, see below where you can find help locally:
The Jersey Eating Disorders Support – firstname.lastname@example.org
Eating Disorder Team, Psychiatric Outpatients’ Department, General Hospital T: 442717
Please seek advice from your GP if you feel you need further services.