Diet apps like Noom are big on the wellness scene, but can a food-tracking app ever be anti-diet?
“I’ve had a lot of people who have fallen back into eating disorders and disordered eating patterns because they were exposed to Noom — or Noom is certainly what they attribute their relapse too.”
Noom aside though, can calorie-counting ever be anti-diet?
For Alexis, it’s pretty clear: “I don’t think that anything that is focusing on restricting your intake so that you can lose weight can ever be anti-diet culture, because that is in fact the very definition of diet culture. ”
For me, and people like me, calorie-counting can quickly become obsessive. In fact, even years on from obsessive restrictive eating, I can still tell you the calories of an apple or an egg, without thinking, and can often notice that these figures pop into my head as I’m scanning the supermarket shelves.
And that’s the point: anything that forces you to overly-focus or obsess over what you are putting in your mouth, is not anti-diet, it can’t be. Even if you ‘allow’ yourself more calories than you used to, it’s still governed by diet culture because the calorie number attached to each food is dictating whether you feel good or bad about yourself, whether you feel you’ve done something right or wrong .
“I knew the number of calories in a chocolate bar before I knew the nutritional value of broccoli, there’s something seriously wrong with that,” Jessica*, a self-named ‘calorie-counter in recovery’ tells me. In fact, it only occurred to her that she knew nothing about which foods would “nourish her body” after 10-years of tracking every calorie she consumed.
“I was completely preoccupied with the calorie-value of a food, I didn’t care whether it had high salt content, loads of processed ingredients or if it would give my body the nutrients it desperately needed, all I was worried about whether it would take me over my daily target or not.”
We’ve all heard the phrase “calories in versus calories out” when it comes to weight loss, but this ignores a fundamental part of health: what kind of calories are we consuming?
If I eat 1,200 calories a day (grossly under the recommended average, by the way) made up entirely of crisps, I might be slimmer than someone who eats 2,500 calories per day of balanced carbs and proteins, but am I healthier? No, because calorie counting on its own, is predominantly a way for us to control how we look on the outside, often neglecting the inside in the process, and this goes against everything that the anti-diet movement tells us.
Plus, apps like Noom are often not taking into account our different calorie needs depending on gender, body size, and exercise habits. As registered dietitian Brigitte Zeitlin told Insider: “The problem with Noom is that they’re not giving you that number based on you. The right calorie amount to lose weight is different for everyone. There shouldn’t be a standard. It’s detrimental, unrealistic and restrictive.”
So, the question for many people will now be, if not calorie counting or food tracking then what?
“To really help people recover from binge eating, we need to help them get to the root of the problem — [to look at] unprocessed trauma and adversity, and the addictive nature of ultra-processed foods,” Ruth Micallef, an award-winning eating disorder counccellor, tells me, “If you are struggling with binge eating, you deserve to be compassionately held through your recovery journey, a journey that has a focus on trauma recovery, not shaming you into thinness, or selling you ‘quick psychological tricks’ that don’t work in the long run.”
And before you dismiss yourself as someone who hasn’t suffered ‘big’ trauma in your life, Ruth warns that, though trauma is a word that people “struggle” to associate themselves with, it’s important to remember that adverseties “come in all shapes” and sizes”, and sometimes, it isn’t even our own: “Our parents and carers inadvertently pass their own binge eating coping behaviors on to us too — and we simply don’t blame them, but we need to acknowledge they need to be held and supported to recover too.