New York Times health columnist Catherine Saint Louis recently covered the many upsides of a spanking new food analyzing device called the Prep Pad. In addition to weighing just how much food you’re about to consume, this unassuming 9-inch-by-6.25 gadget syncs easily with an iPad (generation 3 or higher) to tabulate the grams of carbohydrates, protein, and fat whatever edible hits its scale has to offer — along with the total number of calories these macronutirients add up to.
Exciting as this may be for well-meaning dieters and family food planners trying their best to be “healthy,” I can (un?)comfortably say I’m already concerned.
Hate to be a downer or elicit a slew of eye rolls, but as one of approximately eight million Americans who has suffered from an eating disorder, I consider this new contraption a virtual perpetuator of insidiously unhealthy habits surrounding food.
I’m all for awareness about what you put into your body. But the ability to painstakingly track nutritional content down to the approximate kilojoules of each bite you place in your mouth is an open invitation to become a bit too obsessive.
Saint Louis even says it herself: “Some people read nutrition labels with the kind of zeal others reserve for tabloids,” she writes in the Science Times. “The pleasure is in the appraisal … A café’s peach muffin has one measly gram of fiber? As if.”
This is the precise thought process of someone consumed by monitoring nutritional intake to a fault. Whether we’re talking about anorexia, orthorexia, bulimia, or exercise addiction, people who find themselves ruled by a fixation of controlling what goes in (or what comes out of) their bodies cling to measurement tools like the Prep Pad to fuel their disordered behavior.
The pathology of eating disorders feeds off of weigh-ins and calorie counts, deluding sufferers’ brains into believing there’s some elusive promise of self-acceptance, love, or, at the very least, a temporary escape from anxiety if only they could achieve that perfect number on the scale.
Numerous studies show that even when non-eating disordered individuals rely on calorie counts to control their food intake — as opposed to their intuitive senses of fullness — they come away from meals far less satisfied than if they’d actually let themselves enjoy the experience of eating (absent the monitoring) in the first place.
As Evelyn Tribole argues in her seminal book, Intuitive Eating, we become alienated from our own bodily signals (most of all: satiation) when we focus on the quantitative, rather than qualitative, aspect of consumption. Put otherwise, the more tools we have to distract ourselves from our feelings of hunger and fullness (such as the food-tracker’s new best friend, Prep Pad) the less familiar we become, not just with when we should actually stop eating, but also with how much food we might actually need.
The amount of calories we require to function on a daily basis shifts according to how much activity we’ve undertaken over the past week, the cognitive and emotional challenges our brains have endured during that time, how many hours of sleep we’ve recently logged, and how sedentary our lifestyles are. And that’s only the physical aspect. Sometimes, to maintain sanity, you really just do need to indulge. (Or risk the inevitable binge that comes when you deny your cravings for too long.)
Despite what the vast majority of obsessive calorie counters and self-weighers might like to believe, our bodies are not, as author of Health at Every Size Linda Bacon once explained to me in an interview, calorimeters. We’re a bit more than an endlessly titrated balance of energy expended and energy consumed.
I worry, as I’m sure many eating disorder professionals and former sufferers do, that the popularization and promotion of calorie-tracking devices like Prep Pad will inspire much more harm than good. It’s okay to be healthy and balance your diet with proven-to-be-good-for-you vegetables, a reduction of processed foods, sodium, and saturated fat. But to encourage and enable the numerical monitoring of every item you place on your plate, which the Prep Pad and all its accompanying apps do, is to unintentionally validate the strategies that have rendered so many eating habits pathological.
A gadget that encourages weigh-ins and minute tracking of protein, carbohydrates, and fat may not only all too easily fall into the hands of someone already at risk for an eating disorder — thereby perpetuating and perhaps accelerating their self-destruction. But it may also encourage the opposite of its intended enhancement of self-awareness. Namely: training its users to dissociate from their body’s natural satiety signals by distractedly fixating on an arbitrary (and potentially inaccurate) number.