Do you want to know how many calories you would burn by walking instead of driving to your next destination?
Not everyone does.
Following backlash on social media, Google removed a new calorie-counting feature from its iOS Google Maps app last month.
When iPhone users entered a destination into the Google Maps app on their devices, it displayed the number of calories that a hypothetical user would burn if they walked instead of drove.
The app represented calories as mini cupcakes in messages embedded in its walking directions.
“This walk burns around 313 calories — that’s almost 3 mini cupcakes,” stated one such message, according to CNN.
Some users welcomed the calorie-counting feature, suggesting it might help motivate people to exercise more.
Others, however, expressed concern over the fact that it could not be turned off or customized.
The display of calories and the suggestion that food should be earned or compensated for with exercise could potentially trigger eating disorder behaviors, critics warned.
“It sets cupcakes up to be feared and avoided, which then increases the likelihood of guilt and binge eating when one breaks a food rule and enjoys a yummy cupcake,” Lauren Muhlheim, PsyD, FAED, CEDS-S, a clinical psychologist and eating disorder specialist, told Healthline.
“This linking [of food with exercise] also potentially increases the use of exercise to compensate for eating and can drive eating disordered behavior among patients. Obsessive exercise is a common symptom with serious repercussions,” she added.
Dieting can serve as a gateway
Calorie counting and dietary restriction are common practices among people who are trying to lose weight.
But these behaviors can be taken to dangerous extremes.
“Dieting is the leading gateway behavior into an eating disorder,” Muhlheim said.
“Teaching people to limit their intake according to calorie limits sets them up to ignore internal body cues and feel deprived, which puts them at risk for binge eating. Those with a biological predisposition for anorexia can get stuck in restriction and can’t stop dieting,” she said.
Some people with eating disorders die of complications of their condition.
But most eventually recover, usually with professional help and support.
For those in recovery, calorie counts and other environmental cues can potentially trigger eating disorder behaviors.
“Many people who have eating disorders become obsessed over counting calories,” Muhlheim explained, “so making calorie counts readily available can make it even harder for them to eat.”
Experts disagree on benefits
Even for people without a history of eating disorders, Muhlheim advises against calorie counting as a strategy for weight loss.
Most people who lose weight through caloric restriction eventually regain the weight they lost, if not more, she said.
However, calorie counting remains a pillar of mainstream medical advice for losing weight.
“The benefits of counting calories as a strategy to change diet are that it promotes awareness of what is being eaten, helps someone identify where their extra calories are coming from, allows them to determine where changes in their diet could be made, and helps them work toward a goal,” Christine Pellegrini, PhD, an assistant professor in the Department of Exercise Science and the Arnold School of Public Health at the University of South Carolina, told Healthline.
“If you are not tracking your diet, it is extremely difficult to guess how many calories you are consuming,” she added.
It’s also challenging for many people to estimate how many calories they burn through exercise.
To help them track those burned calories, a wide variety of wearable physical activity monitors have hit the market.
“The effectiveness of these devices for modifying diet, activity, and weight is not clear yet, but so far, they do not seem harmful to most people’s health,” Pellegrini said.
Many apps, websites, and other tools for tracking calories are also available.
Some of them are more customizable than the calorie-counting feature that was integrated into Google Maps, which didn’t account for differences in users’ physical traits.
“The integration of calorie counts into Google Maps is interesting, but there are many challenges with this feature,” Pellegrini said.
“First, energy expenditure is going to differ for everyone, even over the same distance. Age, sex, weight, and body composition are just some of the factors that will influence energy expenditure. Second, many people are not familiar with how many calories they are eating or how many they should be eating. Therefore, providing someone the number of calories they are burning may or may not be helpful,” she said.
However, even imprecise calorie estimates might prompt some people to make healthier choices, Pellegrini suggested.
In contrast, Muhlheim advocated an intuitive approach to eating.
“I think it’s far better to encourage intuitive eating, which is listening to one’s body and eating according to hunger, fullness, and taste — rather than according to some external rules,” she said.
“I’m not sure it’s up to software developers to encourage exercise,” she continued. “I think it’s far more important to promote that bodies of all sizes and shapes have value and deserve access to good food and movement as they wish and without judgement.”