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How healthy is constantly monitoring our health?



CLARKSBURG, W.Va.  — Fitness trackers, fitness and food apps and social media have changed what and how we eat, but maybe not for the better.

Jennifer Alonge prepared to run with her Apple Watch at West Virginia Fitness in Bridgeport.
(WVNews photo by Leah Nestor)

“People are now always talking about their food, always taking pictures, always sharing and always being judged for what they eat, what they wear and how they present themselves. … In many ways, I think eating has become a very complicated task over the last 15 years. It’s become very complicated to eat your food,” said Dr. Taniya Pradhan, West Virginia University Medicine assistant professor in child and adolescent psychiatry. She also runs the West Virginia Eating Disorder Interdisciplinary Team.

Apps came out for a good reason, she said, but can be utilized to serve other purposes that may not always be for healthy reasons.

“We don’t realize how inactive or active we are,” said Brittany Powell, dietetic intern at United Hospital Center. “… It can be surprising to know sometimes how many calories you’re eating, or sometimes, how many calories you’re not eating.”

She said she’ll have patients at the hospital keep track of what they’ve eaten or what they did because it is helpful information to know. However, she said these apps and fitness trackers are not 100 percent accurate.

“I don’t think we should think that they’re 100 percent accurate and use them like that,” Powell said.

Another area of concern for her are the competitions the apps and trackers provide.

“You can become a little bit obsessed with the competition part,” she said, indicating a lack of focus on health.

When it comes to eating right or being more active, she said the technology isn’t necessary, but helpful. When people start to eat in unhealthy ways, they don’t typically keep track of it, she added.

“They just don’t really realize sometimes that they’re not eating enough. Or they do realize it, so they don’t track it because they don’t really want to know the issue. They don’t want to realize the issue, so if they would track it then that would, you know, show them,” she said.

“Sometimes good things start and overdoing it can be really, really devastating,” Pradhan said.

This overdoing it is called orthorexia, which Pradhan defined as a fixation on righteous eating. It is an eating disorder that is not in the Diagnostic Statistical Manual because there is not yet consensus on particular criteria, indicated Pradhan.

Criteria is being talked about in terms of psychological harm, interpersonal distress and physical harm. The compulsive behavior is the manifestation of a mental preoccupation that becomes clinically impairing.

“At a certain point in time, their entire self-worth depends on how compliant they are with this healthy eating behavior. If they don’t eat right or they don’t eat well or they kind of had a transgression in their eyes, they completely become so self-punitive,” she said.

People suffering from orthorexia can become severely malnourshied even though that’s not their intention, she stated. Interpersonal distress is seen in avoidance of social functions and eating alone.

“They don’t want to be judged for what and how they eat,” she said.

Pradhan said she has not seen any pure cases of orthorexia because many of them have an anorexia component, as well. Although symptoms can be looked on as part of anorexia, a fear of gaining weight is not prominent in orthorexics but is essential in anorexia.

However, in population samples, she said many people fulfill partial criteria for the illness. People who know about dietitians, nutritionists, food bloggers and even mothers meet criteria but don’t reach clinical impairment.

“I see a lot of young kids, 13, 14, 15 years old, come in with anorexic symptoms wherein they don’t want to gain weight, but part of that is, ‘I want to eat the right food, and I want to eat the right way. And I won’t eat bad food, and it needs to be prepared in a certain way,’” she said.

Pradhan said that allowing something else to have control “instead of you controlling you” is not the right thing.

“They have to listen to their body eventually, not listen to their apps,” Pradhan said.

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