Should You Be Tracking Food and Exercise?

September 28, 2016

I’m often asked by patients and friends if I recommend keeping a food or activity diary. I have to admit that I’ve always been very ambivalent about this. I know that for people who enjoy tracking and recording things, it can make them more mindful about their choices and can often have a positive impact on their eating.

So why the ambivalence? For one thing, I’m someone who constitutionally dislikes tracking things. I find it to be a burden, and I’m reluctant to recommend anything to others that I wouldn’t do myself. But I do recommend it for those who enjoy keeping diaries, and for those who don’t, I usually suggest they try an app like MyFitnessPal to help make the process easier. However, there’s now some evidence that suggests that using electronic tracking devices to monitor exercise can actually be counterproductive.

A study published this month in the Journal of the American Medical Association compared two groups of volunteers in a study on weight loss. Before they analyzed the data, the researchers were confident that making the job of tracking easier and more accurate bu using the tracker would help people lose more weight. But that’s the opposite of what they found. Participants who used the electronic activity trackers strapped to their upper arm actually lost significantly less weight than those who tracked their activity by posting it at the end of each day on the study’s website.

Why would that be?

I think there are two reasons that this can happen. The first is a well-known effect in social psychology called “moral self-licensing.” This occurs when people will allow themselves to engage in some behavior that they usually try to avoid if they’re also doing something that feels virtuous; for example, having an indulgent dessert after ordering the chicken entrée instead of beef. It also explains why people will eat a lot of cookies from a package that says “no fat” even though, with all the sugar and carbs, those cookies are at least as caloric as the ones with fat.

Moral licensing can affect perceptions too. A study done a few years ago asked people to estimate the calories in a series of unhealthy meals. Half were shown just the meals, and half were shown the same meals with a healthy side dish – like some celery, a small salad, or a piece of fruit. The ones that saw the healthy item estimated the whole meal to have fewer calories than the ones who saw the same unhealthy meals without the extra veggies. So adding the extra food decreased the total calories. Magic!

I think the same thing might be happening with the people in the study. The group using the app may feel more virtuous that they’re collecting all this activity data, which could make them feel entitled to cut themselves some slack with their eating.

The second reason is that knowing that something or someone is monitoring you and watching what you do feels…well, a little creepy. It can make you more self-conscious, and to feel like you’re doing it because you have to for the sake of the performance, not just because you want to. That can make you feel controlled, which is a motivation killer.

Why? Because even when that controlling force is really coming from you, the fact that you feel like you’re being told to do it interferes with a basic need that we all have: self-determination. It’s like when a teenager is tired of hanging out in a messy bedroom and he finally decides on his own that it’s time to clean up. Then his mom pokes her head in the doorway and tells him he should clean up that mess. His response? Probably something along the lines of, “Don’t tell me what to do – it’s my room!”

Wait – didn’t he want to clean up? What’s going on?

It’s all about having a sense of authority over our choices. A study done in France showed that when someone is asking for money, whether the person’s a fund-raiser or a panhandler, they’ll get significantly more money just by adding the following little phrase to the request: “But you are free to accept or refuse.” Well, you might say, of course the person is free to refuse, why would hearing that affect their decision? Because hearing that statement out loud overrides that same admonishing inner voice and allows you to behave more naturally. Without feeling pressured, your natural response might be a bit more generous.

But it’s one thing to reject outside pressure and refuse to do something that you ordinarily would do. What about those who end up doing things that they really don’t want to do, like the emotional eaters I see in my psychotherapy practice? They genuinely want to stop binge eating, but feel they can’t. Why would they repeatedly, and even compulsively, keep doing something that they know they’ll regret?

We’re hard-wired to want autonomy over our own lives. When that need is threatened by feeling controlled, we may act even against our own preferences in order to rebel against that voice that’s pressuring us to do what we know we should do. The result is that people who try to lose weight because they feel they should, may end up doing the opposite of what they want and sometimes even go to the other extreme – just to feel free.

Perhaps giving yourself permission to eat something simply because you want it may actually help you to say no when you don’t, or to say “enough” when you feel it is. That’s what I tell my patients, and it works well for them.

And you might want to try this the next time you want your teen (or teen-equivalent) to do something that needs to get done around the house: “Sweetie, I’d like you to load the dishwasher – but you’re free to do it or not.”

You may be surprised!

 

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