"'MyFitnessPal"' is a Health and fitness app that recommends a calorie and nutrition program based on the user's weight loss or health goals. The app then allows users to track the calories and nutritional values of their food, by either scanning a barcode or searching an extensive database, to ensure they are working towards their goals . The app provides some users with the data and structure that is needed to meet health-related target behaviors . Overall MyFitnessPal is a database of over 14 million foods, with more than 200 million members in over 120 countries, and with this reach, it has raised multiple ethical concerns . The platform has raised concerns related to the accuracy of its data, the user challenges to receiving accurate information/advice, its ability to lead some users to less healthy lifestyles, its strong risk of causing and enabling eating disorders, and its algorithm bias in treating all users equally despite the complexities of the human body and intricacies of health and weight loss.
Mike Lee began building the app that became MyFitnessPal in 2005 as a way to track his weight before his wedding without needing to tediously record every meal on pen and paper as his doctors recommended. After noticing interest from friends and family he began working on it full time with his brother and co-founder Albert Lee. With both brothers working full time on the app it was able to launch on iOS in 2009, where the app quickly exploded in growth.
In 2013 MyFitnessPal received an $18 million funding round led by Kleiner Perkins, which marked the first official and not bootstrapped funding to the company  . Only 2 years later, in 2015, the brothers sold their company to the sports apparel giant Under Armour for $475 million . Since then other fitness trends and brands have emerged, like Peloton and SoulCycle, slowing the app's growth and causing Under Armor to sell MyFitnessPal to investment firm Francisco Partners for $345 million .
Under the new ownership, MyFitnessPal announced the launch of the MyFitnessPal Simple Start Challenge at the end of December 2021 . This challenge is aimed at empowering wellness education with a two-week program developed to help members create healthy habits through daily nutrition and wellness tips, education, tracking reminders, prizes, and incentives for users. Additionally, the program includes a stronger community component and support from Registered Dietitian, Erin Palinski-Wade, and Hollywood Trainer, Jeanette Jenkins .
MyFitnessPal is free but does offer a premium, ad-free, version for $9.99 per month. Prior to developing the premium version, the app derived all of its revenue from selling ad space with the help of mobile ad networks . The free version’s ads are often linked to the user’s preferences collected through their data and offered within app purchases of health/weight-loss-related products . Alternatively, the paid version removes all of the advertisements and provides a customizable nutrition dashboard including dietitian-developed recipes and nutrition tips among other features to aid in the users' health goals .
The user base of MyFitnessPal was initially healthy and overweight populations to help users reach a weight and health goals . However, the company did not adequately design the application informed by the experiences, interests, and needs of its users who struggle with body image problems and eating disorders . This pitfall in identifying their user base has led to many ethical concerns regarding the application, specifically related to eating disorders. MyFitnessPal is designed for their 'ideal' users who have a functional relationship with food, and thus the app fails to provide effective attention and provision to vulnerable users who have a dysfunctional relationship with food .
How it works
The app has a wide array of features and functions but in its essence, it is based on goal setting. The app is designed to help users develop an individualized diet and exercise plan to help achieve their fitness goals . The app is based on the science that has been tested in multiple settings including in obesity research there is evidence that suggests that tracking food and calorie intake and activity levels are strongly correlated with people achieving their weight-loss goals . To aid users in this process the app has many features including a view of the users' total daily intake of calories, nutrients, and macronutrients. These statistics are displayed in easy-to-interpret graphs and pie charts .
MyFitnessPal also makes use of conditioning to pursued users towards their goals through built-in warnings and rewards . When a user is achieving their health-related goals the app rewards them with trophies or badges, which enables users to compare their achievements in the app with other users, ultimately gameifying the weight loss/health process . Alternatively, if the user is approaching or passing their calorie or nutrient limits for the day they will receive warnings on their page.
MyFitnessPal users have the option to use the app either individually or to engage in the in-app social-media-like community of sharing goals and competing over badges . This social component includes functions that allow people to share their progress with friends (through their badges, etc) and a blog posting community of people sharing fitness advice that is linked within the app . In addition to the in-app features, users can also choose to link the app with a whole host of fitness and exercise-related apps and devices like Fitbit . All of these features make the app helpful to many, especially to those who compete in elite sports and have nutritionists and specific workout and eating plans laid out .
Inaccurate Data and Algorithm Bias Concerns
MyFitnessPal has raised ethical concerns regarding both its data accuracy and algorithm bias. To start, the data in the app can be very inaccurate and these database gaps and errors have led experts to suggest that people use their recommendations cautiously  . These database errors occur since users are allowed to manually input the information about any food they want and due to human error or carelessness these values are often inaccurate . Due to these errors and other database inaccuracies, MyFitnessPal also underestimates the ingestion of nutrients. Both of these inaccuracies are dangerous to users since they often follow the nutrient and calorie recommendations very strictly .
Additionally, calories are not a completely accurate representation of food items to start with so even the users who scan bar codes to input their foods are experiencing a level of error. In the United States, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) allows numbers on nutrition labels to be up to 20 percent off the actual values. These nutrition values, including calories, are usually undercounted when there is an error .
To add to these errors in calorie and nutrition values, our bodies also digest certain foods differently than others. For example, many foods pass through the intestines partially undigested, meaning the body can’t absorb all of the calories and thus the listed calories are a total while the actual calories absorbed from the food is just a portion of that  . While the errors of nutrition labels are not itself a problem caused by MyFitnessPal it is not mentioned or warned against within the platform, and thus dietetic or nutritionist involvement is recommended by experts for supporting users to use the platform more effectively .
The data and algorithms used by MyFitnessPal also don’t take into account the differences between its users. People’s unique features including their weight, genetics, and the gut microbiome all affect how they lose and gain weight and the app has no way of taking these factors into consideration when the algorithm recommends a weight loss plan . MyFitnessPal’s algorithm is too uniform and simple to take these advanced weight loss factors into account. The algorithm calculates the number of calories a user has consumed from food and burned from exercise and then lets them know how many calories they have left to eat for the day. These recommendations are based on a calorie goal simply calculated using the users' weight and weight loss goal in time and pounds .
To start the calorie recommendations are not adjusted to account for a user's BMR. A lighter person’s body has a lower BMR than that of a heavier person and this affects how they lose weight. As people lose weight their bodies become more fuel-efficient and thus they burn fewer calories doing the same activities than they did before. Scientists call this phenomenon adaptive thermogenesis, and it ultimately makes it more difficult for lighter people to lose and then maintain weight loss with the same number of calories . People’s genetic makeup also affects weight regulation and loss. Research comparing sets of identical twins suggests that not only do genetic factors influence how easily people gain weight but they also affect how easily they lose weight . On top of all of this, gut health and microbiome also contribute to people’s weight. The mix of microbes in the gut is proven to be different in obese people versus lean individuals. These differences matter since people whose microbes are more efficient at harvesting energy from food are more likely to gain weight because they absorb more calories from the same food ingested as people with less efficient microbes .
The combination of inaccurate data inputs, the initial inaccuracy of nutrition labels to start with, and the vast intricacies of weight between individuals leave MyFitnessPal’s recommendations problematic and inaccurate for many. People often follow the app's recommendations very closely and this can harm their health, leaving the company ethically questionable since they do not warn the consumers about any of these differences or possible errors on their platform .
Eating Disorder and Unhealthy Eating Habits Concerns
Another ethical concern with MyFitnessPal is that it can cause people to develop eating disorders, aids people with eating disorders in their disordered habits, and encourages some people to develop less extreme but still concerning eating habits. These ethical concerns stem from MyFitnessPal acting as if their platform operates in the same way for all people (un-named subjects). Since the app is based on calories and is less accurate in tracking nutrients it can encourage its users to eat more unhealthy foods that still fall within the calorie limits but are harmful to the users' health. Not all calories are the same, but the app makes them appear as if they are. A certain quantity of candy can have the same amount of calories as some quantity of vegetables yet the vegetables have significantly more health benefits from their nutrients, so a low-calorie diet can not always be assumed to be a healthy one. Nutrient-dense foods like fruits and vegetables are linked to a lower risk of mortality and affect your hormone levels, hunger/appetite, and metabolism in a healthier way than more processed foods with the same amount of calories would . By encouraging users to hit very targetted calorie intakes without having accurate nutrient values or nutrient goals the app can ultimately hurt people’s overall health.
MyFitnessPal’s algorithm also allows users to set unrealistic and often unhealthy weight loss goals. People are able to enter a goal to lose a certain amount of pounds in a very short period and the algorithm will give them a very low daily calorie intake to reach that goal, even if it can be very harmful to the person's body. When a calorie deficit, caused by extreme dietary restrictions or heavy exercise, is too extreme people's bodies will resort to pulling energy from protein stores, ultimately breaking down muscle for fuel . Similarly, if a person cuts carbs out of their diet to help reach their calorie goal they will likely lose more water weight than fat since carbs are normally stored with water in cells and the diet would reduce the body’s carb stores . By allowing people to set extreme weight goals and focusing on calories over nutrition MyFitnessPal can lead people to harm their bodies breaking down muscle and water weight instead of fat without the person knowing.
The application is also ethically concerning due to its ability to cause and support the longevity of eating disorders in its users. MyFitnessPal was originally created for the founder and his wife to lose weight before their wedding day, and thus they were the “personas” its design was based on. However, when the app was scaled to over a hundred countries the persona was not developed to include people with eating disorders in the design process. So while the app was designed to help users obtain and maintain healthy weight goals, research has shown that it “is widely used in an eating disorder population and is perceived as contributing to eating disorder symptoms” . One study suggested that about seventy-five percent of people diagnosed with eating disorders used MyFitnessPal and that seventy-three percent of these users believed that the app contributed to their eating disorder . More generally, several studies have also found that weighing food and using calorie trackers, both of which are actions that MyFitnessPal encourages and enables, can contribute to unhealthy eating habits in some people . In addition to the basic features of the app, the community component can be especially triggering for people suffering from eating disorders since they are competitive illnesses, and the ability to compare calories and weight loss with others fuels this harmful competitive nature in some people .
Currently, the app gives warnings when people set calorie goals that ar too low, but they have no screenings for eating disorders in their users and are taking no other action to support that community . By neglecting to consider people with eating disorders or those who are more susceptible to developing them MyFitnessPal is contributing to people continuing or developing very harmful illnesses. This population of people is vulnerable and experts agree that additional research and advocacy are needed surrounding calorie tracking applications, like MyFitnessPal in an eating disorder population . Additionally, many clinicians are seeing the harm that apps like this cause to people recovering from eating disorders and are now being trained to inquire about their clients' food tracking apps and to recommend ones designed with people with eating disorder’s in mind, like Recovery Record . Calorie tracking can work for many people however if it is leading someone to feel guilt, shame, or anxiety then experts recommend discontinuing the practice . MyFitnessPal has no warnings about these feelings or signs of developing eating disorders, is not ensuring people with eating disorders are protected from the community aspect of their application, and are warning against yet still allowing dangerously low-calorie goals for its users. All of these actions are ethically concerning and very harmful to a portion of MyFitnessPal’s user base.
User Interface and Monetization Concerns
MyFitnessPal also raises ethical concerns regarding its promises to users and monetization strategy. MyFitnessPal is novel in space due to its claim that tracking can be done in less than 5 minutes a day , making the process far quicker than the alternative handwritten option. However, this time promise has not appeared to be true in testing with some users claiming the process was too time-consuming leading them to have low motivation for long-term use . Users also have a lot of difficulties matching and calculating the number of calories in their food leading to inaccuracies. Users complain that matching food items and estimating portion sizes were challenging in the app . Additionally, calorie counts are not available for every food item that people eat and thus they are required to rely on their own estimates. Studies show that people are not good at estimating calories in food, and one survey of 2,200 adults found that consumers undershot the calorie count reality of foods by an average of 165 calories . In addition to estimating calories in meals consumers also have to estimate the portion size of their food and this also statistically is underreported by consumers . Similarly, people tend to overestimate how much they move, and thus how many calories they burn in a day, by up to seventy-two percent .
MyFitnessPal encourages its users to use scales and measuring cups to portion foods and calculate calories accurately . However, this precision can detract from the pleasure of eating by making meals very tedious and stressful which can lead to unhealthy relationships with food making it even harder for people to lose and maintain weight . MyFitnessPal’s database holes lead users to either guess their food intake with a large degree of inaccuracy or to tediously measure their portions which can contribute to unhealthy habits and harm users.
The monetization of MyFitnessPal also contributes to an ethically concerning relationship with its users. At MyFitnessPal the marketing team works to ensure that “everyone and everything is geared towards keeping that customer interacting with” them . This sums up how the app works hard to communicate with users across every channel possible, by using user data to target them with emails, advertisements, and other forms of communication as often as possible . The app also uses user data to target there in app advertisements. All of these efforts are to build an ongoing relationship with users yet they have the ability to further contribute to people’s obsession with their food and exercise and lead to unhealthy lifestyle habits .