How Apps Can Be Used for Eating Disorder Recovery

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New technology in the form of applications (AKA “apps”) offers potential risks and benefits for patients with eating disorders.

Dangers of Fitness Trackers for Patients With Eating Disorders

Although the impact of fitness trackers on clients with eating disorders has not yet been well studied, anecdotal evidence and some early research suggest these applications may be detrimental. People with restrictive eating disorders frequently obsess about the number of calories they are consuming and burning. Many health apps emphasize tracking the ingestion and expenditure of calories.

In addition, they encourage the user to reduce intake, increase energy expenditure and set increasingly extreme goals, all behaviors that are consistent with eating disorders. In one study of people with eating disorders, 75% of participants reported using My Fitness Pal, a calorie-counting mobile app that allows users to track and input their daily food intake. Of these users, 73% believed the app had contributed to their eating disorder. 

Eating Disorder Recovery Apps

On the other hand, there are also several eating disorder recovery apps that may be helpful to people with eating disorders. Some of these applications embody or support principles of evidence-based treatments such as Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). One particularly important feature that some apps provide is self-monitoring, which is also a hallmark of CBT for many mental disorders. In the treatment of eating disorders, self-monitoring involves recording food consumed along with accompanying thoughts and feelings. App-based self-monitoring offers several advantages over paper monitoring.

As most individuals keep their smartphones with them much of the time, using eating disorder recovery apps may facilitate more real-time monitoring, providing both greater convenience and accuracy.

While fitness apps and eating disorder recovery self-monitoring apps both incorporate tracking, each differs in focus. Fitness apps primarily track numbers and data, such as caloric intake. Eating disorder recovery apps, on the other hand, are concerned more with tracking the thoughts and feelings associated with eating than with the specific amounts. This distinction is significant.

Below is information about two of the more popular eating disorder apps that include self-monitoring.

Recovery Record

A 2014 study by Jurascio and colleagues found Recovery Record to be the most comprehensive eating disorder treatment app on the market. It contains features including self-monitoring, personalized coping strategies, social connections, and a portal to connect with the user’s clinician. It also contains components of cognitive-behavioral based interventions.

Users can enter food, thoughts, feelings, and urges to use compensatory behaviors. The app offers assistance with coping strategies and goal setting in addition to the ability to set reminders. Additional features include meal planning, rewards, affirmations, and the potential to connect with others. The app also allows therapists to monitor their patients' use of the app. Although many patients find this feature an added benefit, some may feel it's intrusive.

Rise Up & Recover

Rise Up is another popular and well-regarded app. Rise Up has a comparable self-monitoring feature that allows for recording of daily meals and snacks, emotions, and “target behaviors” such as bingeing and purging. The app encourages the use of coping skills during times of distress. Users can share motivational quotes, images, and affirmations. They can access additional information sources such as music, podcasts, articles, and a treatment directory. The app can also export meal data to share with members of the user’s treatment team.

What to Look for in an Eating Disorder Recovery App

Apps come and go. Depending on when you read this, the suggestions above may no longer be state of the art or available. Finding an app with the right features is more important than any specific title. We offer the following suggestions on what to look for:

  1. Self-monitoring of food intake without calorie counting. Self-monitoring is a well-researched and important element of eating disorder treatment. Calorie-counting, however, is not recommended because it may increase obsessive thinking.
  2. Fields to log behaviors, thoughts, and feelings. Recovery involves becoming more aware of feelings and thoughts as well as changing behaviors. Thus, an app used for recovery should have fields to log this information.
  3. Motivation and/or coping strategies. Apps that incorporate ways to remind you of what you might want to try or already know (but can need a reminder at the moment) can be supportive.

A Word From Verywell

Remember that an app is not a substitute for treatment. It is always a good idea to discuss the use of an eating-related app with your treatment team. In addition, keeping track of eating habits with a hand-written food log or diary can help you to better understand your current unhealthy patterns in order to promote change.

Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  • Levinson, Cheri A., Laura Fewell, and Leigh C. Brosof. 2017. “My Fitness Pal Calorie Tracker Usage in the Eating Disorders.” Eating Behaviors 27: 14–16.

  • Lindgreen, Pil, Kirsten Lomborg, and Loa Clausen. 2018. “Patient Experiences Using a Self-Monitoring App in Eating Disorder Treatment: Qualitative Study.” JMIR MHealth and UHealth 6 (6): e10253.

  • Fairburn CG, & Rothwell ER (2015). Apps and Eating Disorders: A Systemic Clinical Appraisal. International Journal of Eating Disorders.
  • Juarascio AS, Manasse SM, Goldstein SP, Forman EM, Butryn ML (2014). Review of smartphone applications for the treatment of eating disorders. European Eating Disorder Review, 23: 1–11.
  • References:

By Lauren Muhlheim, PsyD, CEDS
 Lauren Muhlheim, PsyD, is a certified eating disorders expert and clinical psychologist who provides cognitive behavioral psychotherapy.