by Tori Newby ‘22
You’re in seventh grade science class eagerly awaiting Thanksgiving break, and your teacher hands out an assignment due when you get back. Students groan, and you join in on the negativity, thinking that homework is the last thing you will want to be doing over break. Little do you know, this assignment will impact you for years to come, leaving you with feelings far worse than from merely doing homework.
The assignment? Calorie-tracking. You’re expected to log every bite of food you eat over break onto a website, where your eating habits and calorie counts will be tracked for you to evaluate and submit to your teacher. The point, of course, is to teach the students about balanced eating and make them aware of what they are putting into their bodies each day. However, when you log 2001 calories and the number turns an alarming red to let you know you’ve exceeded your recommended amount, the experience has the potential to turn into an anxiety-inducing habit to last for years–the basis for an eating disorder.
This project is assigned in some health classes at Sherwood, a class many students take sophomore year. The program is called MyFitnessPal, and students are expected to download an app to log their food intake and exercise throughout one week. The app is connected to the teacher’s app so they can monitor the students.
Requiring teenagers to count calories is detrimental to their body image and mental health. Psychology Today notes that the teen brain is particularly vulnerable to their environment, and requiring middle and high school students to count calories has the ability to affect them mentally, both in the moment and for years to come.
Requiring an exact log of food and exercise each day can lead to guilt as well. “I remember I ate a cheeseburger and was embarrassed to track it on the app,” said a senior, who asked to remain anonymous. “I lied about how much I worked out,” noted another anonymous senior.
Students input their height, weight, gender, age, and activity level into the app in order to get a custom calorie goal, but these factors fail to recognize the realities of genetics, metabolism, and other health conditions that affect how many calories a person needs in a day.
The app also asks the user if their goal is to lose, gain, or maintain their weight. Teens and preteens should not be focused on weight loss or weight gain, but rather nutrition from a holistic approach. “Healthy” means something different for everyone, as different people need different amounts of exercise and certain nutrients. A focus on counting calories can steer students away from some nutrient-dense healthy foods, such as nuts or avocados. 200 calories worth of fruit is not the same as 200 calories worth of candy, but tracking calories theoretically presents the two food families as the same value.
Focusing on calorie intake can be stressful as it does not necessarily promote balance in a diet. According to WebMD, one out of seven women is struggling with an eating disorder, one out of three adolescent girls think they are overweight, and one out of six are trying to lose weight. For men, 20 to 40 percent are unhappy with some aspect of their looks, including weight and muscle size. A mandatory assignment in health classes requiring students to track their calories can exacerbate or ignite these sentiments.
Having awareness of what one is consuming is healthy, but tracking every calorie that enters your body is not. Counting calories can damage one’s relationship with food and affect their mental health, especially at the crucial developmental stage of adolescence.