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Why diets & tracking apps don't always work

It's all about weight loss

It’s obvious that eating is not just about sustenance and health in our culture. Eating is social, emotional and tied to our mental health. It’s not like we can completely avoid certain foods, as they are a big part of most social activities. Our weight and appearance are part of our identity and feelings of self-worth, for men and women. If you lose weight for any reason, comments of “wow, you look good, did you lose weight?!” happen all the time. But don’t lose too much: “You’re too skinny,” or “you need to put on some weight.”

My recent review of calorie counting apps revealed how strong the bias is towards weight loss. What about knowing what’s in our food so we can see how it affects our bodies? This is hard to find in the apps.

Food and nutrition have a role to play in any mental health discussion. Under stress, most of us change our eating in ways that impact how we feel. For example, extreme anxiety or depression leads to over or under eating. These eating patterns are used as a factor in diagnosing depression. In therapy, I often check with clients on nutrition and discover they are eating highly processed foods instead of those loaded with nutritional benefits. Eating mindlessly to try to fill emotional emptiness is common. Or the opposite, clients will come in to my office at 4 p.m, having not eaten all day. They forgot to listen to their body asking for energy. I keep protein bars on hand for those occasions.

When eating is the coping skill of choice

Eating can become a primary coping skill to soothe emotional distress. After all, when life feels out of control, food is predictable and controllable. When we are out of control with emotions or life circumstances are upsetting, it’s easy to turn to food. It’s also highly encouraged by our culture. “Feeling bad? Have a glass of wine or a bowl of ice cream!” The downside is when it's no longer pleasurable to eat because of the guilt or health consequences.

In the extreme, the use of control with food leads to eating disorders. These can damage your health and even be life threatening, so please seek professional support if you have concerns.

Who’s in charge here?

Doesn’t maintaining healthy weight mean having some control over food? Yes, however when your focus shifts to mindful awareness of how food affects you, it becomes less emotional and food is less powerful. Instead of being locked into a battle with food, you can make choices based on what you need and feel, and with more awareness of the positive and negative effects of those choices. For example, you might decide to have that special dessert, knowing you’ll feel lethargic afterwards. It can be a conscious choice. You could decide to avoid white bread and fill up on fruits and veggies because they help you feel better the next day.

How to start practicing mindfulness

Jan Chozen Bays book, Mindful Eating: A Guide to Rediscovering a Healthy and Joyful Relationship with Food is a great introduction to using mindfulness practice with eating. I love the enclosed cd with guided meditations. There are a lot of great websites that explain how to be mindful when eating. My favorite evidence based course on mindfulness is the free online Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction course based on Jon Kabat-Zinn at,

These resources are helpful to begin practicing mindfulness. However, I believe it’s important to go further. Exploring how you use food to cope is important. Discover the deeply ingrained habits you have around food and where they came from. I believe understanding the nutritional components of food, the macros and micros, such as the calories, vitamins, etc. can be used within mindfulness & using tracking apps can help; however, focusing on them as a starting point can put you in a loop of trying to exercise control/power in your life and experiencing disappointment when you fall into your usual ways of coping.

Replacing food as a coping skill

Once you know the role food has in your life, you can explore what else gives you energy or calms you when you're upset. Some ideas: Taking a walk, dancing, calling a friend, cuddling a pet, working on a project, looking at pictures of a happy place, reading a book. It may take some effort to break habits. I encourage you to take a break from sugar and processed foods as a start. Finding support with a partner or friend or family member is helpful. Wishing you good health and happy eating! Amanda

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