Is Our Obsession With Health Data Making Us Crazy?

6 minute read

When Bri Cawsey started wearing a Fitbit, she thought it was simply a “really cool tool” for charting her runs. Slowly but surely, however, the British Columbia-based strength and conditioning coach began tracking everything—calories, macronutrients, fertility—and noticed the habit spiraling out of control.

“It became a little bit of an obsessive habit, especially around the food,” Cawsey remembers. Eventually, she says, it got so bad that, if she didn’t research a meal’s calorie and nutrient breakdown in advance, she’d feel anxious and upset at restaurants. In 2014, after realizing that her once-healthy habit had turned hazardous, Wilson “broke up” with her Fitbit, detailing the decision in a post on her fitness blog. She’s been tracker-free ever since, save for a brief stint while training to qualify for the Boston Marathon, and recommends her clients stay that way, too. “It was this great sense of peace,” she says of ditching the data. “I wasn’t as critical with myself.”

In a culture where wellness junkies use apps, websites and wearables to monitor every morsel that passes their lips, every step they take, every beat of their hearts, their sleep cycles, and their fitness progress, we have health insights we’ve never had before. But Dr. George Zgourides, a Texas-based psychologist, family medicine doctor and author of the 2002 book Stop Worrying About Your Health, says these boundless data can contribute to a culture of health anxiety.

Increasingly, he’s noticing that people are excessively concerned about health issues to the point that it might be interfering with mental health, work and relationships.

And while once these worriers might have stoked their fears only with “Dr. Google,” as Zgourides calls it, they’re now equipped with an army of apps and devices that can spit out personalized data on command. “Now that you can count every calorie and every step you’re taking, people that might have some tendency toward an obsession with or a focus on numbers, this feeds the behavior in a way that is not always helpful,” Zgourides says.

In 2015, for example, researchers at Duke University in North Carolina found that activity-tracking can decrease enjoyment of whatever pastime someone is trying to quantify, and even lead people to do less of it when the trackers are off. A 2017 study published in the journal Eating Behaviors also found associations between the use of calorie-counting and/or fitness-tracking devices and eating disorder symptoms among college students. And a 2016 survey of female Fitbit users found that almost 60% felt like their days were controlled by their devices, and 30% said the gadget was an “enemy” that made them feel guilty.

Even as these trackers grow more and more sophisticated, the pushback against them—for reasons ranging from mental health to consumer privacy—is mounting. Companies are even capitalizing by offering products that provide an alternative to data overload.

Take Shapa, a scale made by a startup of the same name. Shapa doesn’t spit out your weight when you step on it. Instead, it aggregates three weeks of weigh-in data, and uses a color-coded system to tell users if they’re gaining pounds, holding steady or losing weight. The idea, says co-founder and behavioral scientist Dan Ariely, is to shift the focus away from incremental weight changes, and toward more meaningful patterns.

“My weight can go up and down depending on when I went to the bathroom and how much salt I’ve had and when I peed last and how much I’m dehydrated,” Ariely says. “Giving people information about things going up and down within that range is just confusing and demotivating, and it’s not helping [them] understand the relationship between cause and effect.”

Shapa’s approach is meant to help people see the connection between their recent behavior and their weight, without getting bogged down in the specific numbers. It’s designed to counteract other products in the wellness-tracking world, Ariely says, which tend to dump data on people without context or actionable advice. “A lot of the ‘quantified self’ is basically designed for computer algorithms, not for people,” he says.

Food-diary app YouAte is doing something similar for dieting. Like many nutrition apps, it allows users to log their meals and snacks, but instead of tabulating calorie counts, it asks individuals to categorize their food choices as “on-path” or “off-path” and note how those choices made them feel, ideally fostering mindful—but not obsessive—eating. There’s also YouFood, a food-diary app that helps users track their choices through photos, so they can get a general sense of their nutrition habits rather than meticulously counting calories and macronutrients.

That’s a smart strategy, says Jessica Setnick, a Texas-based registered dietitian and eating-disorder specialist. “Under almost no circumstances would I recommend calorie counting,” she says. “Ultimately, the goal is to not need to count calories at all, but to be able to follow internal cues for guidance.”

Setnick says eating disorders existed long before Fitbits and diet apps, but allows that these gadgets can exacerbate underlying issues. The “tools” can become “weapons,” she says, and nutrition-information overload can be debilitating.

“We have the most nutrition information of anywhere in the world, and yet it hasn’t necessarily made us Americans healthier at all,” she says. “The best information is really Michael Pollan-esque: Eat mostly plants, not too much, and enjoy your food. It’s very, very basic information that people need.”

Cawsey, the former Fitbit addict, agrees. She says listening to internal cues, rather than health and fitness apps, has made her far happier, and healthier.

“If you are one of those people who is attached to all your apps and gadgets, maybe try to take a break and notice how you feel without it and trust yourself to eat without your Fitbit or MyFitnessPal telling you what to eat,” she suggests. “Spending that time to just let it all go and just trust yourself, listen to yourself, was really healing.”

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