How I got obsessed with counting calories, and why I finally stopped
Reviewed by Susan Radzilowski, MSW, LMSW, ACSW
Written byElise Burley
Last updated: 09/22/2023
Back in 2008, I created a free account on one of the first online calorie-counting tools. The database of nutritional and activity information caught my eye right away, and soon I was hooked.
My healthy intentions didn’t last, though. I went from casually logging meals and trying to hit my calorie goal to obsessively tracking every morsel that entered my system—then restricting myself further when I didn’t see results fast enough.
I tried quitting the app several times, but the siren call was too strong. And each time I started using it again, I’d ignore all the warning signs my mind and body were giving me.
What’s the appeal of these apps?
Not many people would say they enjoy dieting, but using an app to keep track of how well you’re taking care of yourself? For some of us, that sounds interesting—even kind of fun.
Today there are many options for logging your meals and workouts, and the basic functions of these apps tend to look the same. You can plug in your stats and goals to get a personalized plan, learn about the nutritional value of what you’re eating, log your meals and activities, see trends in your progress, and connect with a supportive community. You can also sync with other fitness apps and devices to track your workouts and activity levels.
If you’ve used a diet or fitness app, it’s likely you understand the sense of achievement that comes from meeting your daily goals—as well as the feelings of disappointment, guilt, and anxiety those apps can trigger when you “fail.”1, 2
For instance, the app may show your intake number as green for the day: a subtle but powerful message that you’ve done a good job. But if you go over the limit, your count may turn red. For some of us, that color is a classic warning sign.
In my early days of counting calories, I was able to shake off negative feelings pretty easily. But as my desire to hit my goals intensified, my relationship with food became more complicated—and those negative feelings became much harder to ignore.
The influence of diet culture
Around the same time I started using the calorie app, I also started working out with DVDs and logging my estimated output for each session. Every time I pressed play, I was bombarded with coaches saying things like “We’re going to burn some calories today!” and “If you want to look like an athlete, you’ve got to start eating like one!”
Similar messaging is now amplified by social media. Fitness influencers post daily photos of their flawless bodies, foodies share picture-perfect meals, and wellness gurus preach the benefits of organic, vegan, keto, paleo, carnivore, intermittent fasting, and other restrictive diets.
When you’re constantly exposed to these messages, it’s easy to internalize ideas like “Food is either good or bad” or “Health equals worthiness.” You may find yourself in a fog of fixating on numbers, losing pleasure in meals, and depending more and more on an app to tell you what and when to eat.
I got trapped in the fog for months. During that time, I started engaging in two unhealthy behaviors: increasingly extreme diet restriction and excessive exercise.
When healthy habits become self-destructive
I was so focused on my own goals, the diet culture messages swirling around me, and the rewards I got from using the app that I suffered mental and physical consequences. The first two times this happened, I stopped using the app for a while. Then, a few months later, I found myself reinstalling it.
During my third and most extreme stint, my daily routine revolved entirely around food. I was always thinking about my next meal—partly because I was really hungry, but mostly because I couldn’t stop obsessing over whether that meal was “healthy” enough. I felt so anxious about controlling my eating habits that anytime someone invited me to an event with food or alcohol, I’d come up with an excuse not to go.
Eventually, after months of rigid dieting and overexercising, I started to see physical effects. My menstrual cycle stopped, I lost a lot of muscle, my skin looked dull and loose, my heart started racing, I had terrible insomnia, and my hunger hormones were completely out of whack.
In the afternoon or late at night, I’d find myself bingeing on every “forbidden” food I could find. But my brain wouldn’t get the message that my stomach was uncomfortably full—instead it continued to trigger the strongest cravings for fat and carbs I’ve ever felt in my life. It was in the middle of one of these episodes that I realized things had gotten out of hand.
Almost a decade later, I learned about a form of disordered eating that isn’t officially classified as an eating disorder like anorexia or bulimia. This lesser-known condition, orthorexia nervosa, involves an unhealthy obsession with healthy eating. People with orthorexia fixate on the quality of food, rather than the quantity—and it often goes hand in hand with exercise addiction.3 This felt immediately familiar, as did some aspects of other eating disorders.
Part of why it’s hard to recognize orthorexia and other disordered eating is our tendency as a society to normalize (and even reward) all efforts to take care of our health. In my mind, I wasn’t “obsessed”—I was disciplined and motivated. It can be uncomfortable to work toward big goals, and until I hit my breaking point, I saw the negative effects of my eating and exercise patterns as just part of the process.
Lessons from recovery
For weeks after my third and final time leaving the app, I rested and ate whatever I wanted while doing my best to manage my cravings. During this recovery period, I also had a chance to reflect on and research what I’d been through. Here’s some of what I learned about why calorie-counting apps can be a participating factor in disordered eating:
They focus primarily on the numbers. These apps are built on the oversimplified rule of “calories in vs. calories out.” The app I was using encouraged me to zero in on that number without accounting for other factors like my resting metabolic rate, muscle mass, hormonal fluctuations, and stress responses, all of which impact how our bodies engage with food and exercise.
They’re not always accurate. The app gave a specific number of calories for each food, but I was almost certainly consuming more or fewer calories depending on the portion size, cooking method, and variations in the food itself. Calorie burns are also estimated by the app, but those can fluctuate greatly. By trusting that every count the app provided was real, I allowed it to set me up for undereating or overexercising.
Their negative reinforcement can fuel harmful behavior. Signals like red numbers, high carb counts, and low-burn workouts triggered feelings of guilt and shame for me. This negative reinforcement enabled me to get trapped in a harmful cycle of restrictive eating, guilt-driven exercise, self-punishment, and a distorted relationship with food.
They can make it seem like “bad” foods should be earned. I was tracking calories to such an extreme degree that I didn’t allow myself to eat certain foods unless I felt like I deserved a reward. This meant I was essentially living for the “cheat meals” I’d give myself every week or two. When it was finally time to indulge, I felt anxious to make it count. This occasionally led to overeating, feeling guilty, and punishing myself for it.
They can lead to overdependence. Because I was relying entirely on the app to tell me what and when to eat, I learned to ignore my body’s cues around food. I never got to eat what I wanted or when I wanted. Eating became a chore—a necessary task to check off, rather than a pleasurable experience.
Are all calorie-counting apps harmful?
The way calorie-counting apps are designed—with their heavy focus on numbers, green positive signals, and red warning signs—can create a harmful mindset around food. And research has associated calorie tracking with disordered eating behaviors.4
In my case, the app’s negative impact outweighed its benefits, but research also shows that the underlying motives for using these apps can play a role in how helpful or harmful they are.5 For instance, people who use calorie-counting apps to manage a chronic condition may be less likely to struggle with disordered eating than people whose app use is driven by weight control or a negative body image.
Adopting a healthier approach
If you’re thinking about using a calorie-counting app, here are my recommendations for protecting your mental and physical health.
Consider monitoring your current habits first. Before setting a calorie goal, get a baseline understanding of your habits so you can spot trends, identify areas for improvement, and make gradual changes that align with your health goals.
Pay attention to your hunger and fullness cues. Rather than rely on an app to tell you when and how much to eat, tune in to your natural signals. Eat when you’re hungry, and stop when you’re full. You can still track your meals as you go, but there’s no need to limit them to what the app recommends if your body feels otherwise.
Prioritize satisfaction over calorie count. Instead of looking at which foods have the lowest number of calories, focus on nourishing your body with nutrient-dense foods that leave you feeling satisfied. It doesn’t matter if you’re in the red—it matters that you’re fueling your body.
Forgive yourself if you get off track. Restricting your diet or trying to compensate with exercise just keeps a negative cycle going. Practice self-compassion and return to making choices that support your overall well-being.
Find alternative ways to measure progress. Your clothing size and the number on the scale aren’t the healthiest ways to measure success. Focus on outcomes like how you feel, greater strength and stamina, increased energy, and better sleep.
Remember the bigger picture. Your overall health includes a number of factors, and calories are just one. Consider learning more about stress management, self-care, and other components of well-being.
Get professional support. If you notice that your relationship with food and exercise is becoming unhealthy or if you’re struggling to ditch a calorie-counting app, look for a therapist who specializes in disordered eating and eating disorders. Talking with a registered dietitian can also be a big help.
An app should never rule your life
I don’t use apps to track calories anymore, but I still have my old account. Once or twice a year, I log in to look up a specific food or recipe because I’m curious about its nutritional value. Then I mutter “huh!” to myself, log out, and don’t give it a second thought.
If you can learn to use calorie-counting apps primarily for awareness, education, and a balanced lifestyle, then they may be a useful resource. But if you find yourself spinning out from the experience, like I did, then it’s time to say goodbye to tracking.
Talking with a therapist can help you quit a calorie-counting app or guide you through using it in a mentally healthy way. Browse our directory to find a licensed mental health professional near you.
About the author
Elise Burley is a member of the therapist.com editorial team. She has more than a decade of professional experience writing and editing on a variety of health topics, including for several health-related e-commerce businesses, media publications, and licensed professionals. When she’s not working, she’s usually practicing yoga or off the grid somewhere on her latest canoe camping adventure.
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