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Introducing Dietary Self-Monitoring to Undergraduate Women via a Calorie Counting App Has No Effect on Mental Health or Health Behaviors: Results From a Randomized Controlled Trial

Published:August 02, 2021DOI:



      Strong positive relationships between dietary self-monitoring and eating disorder risk are seen in population-based, observational studies. However, current evidence cannot establish causality. Furthermore, little is known about other mental and behavioral health consequences of dietary self-monitoring among college women, a population vulnerable to eating disorders.


      To determine if introducing dietary self-monitoring via a popular smartphone app to undergraduate women impacts eating disorder risk, other aspects of mental health, or health behaviors including dietary intake and physical activity.


      Randomized controlled trial.


      Undergraduate women who had not engaged in dietary self-monitoring in the past year and who were at low-risk for an eating disorder participated between May and October 2019 (n = 200).


      Participants were randomly assigned to engage in dietary self-monitoring via MyFitnessPal for approximately 1 month or to receive no intervention.

      Main outcome measures

      Self-report data on eating disorder risk, other mental health outcomes, and health behaviors were collected at baseline and post-intervention.

      Statistical analyses performed

      Linear and logistic regressions were utilized to test hypotheses.


      Adherence to the intervention was high, with participants recording their dietary intake via MyFitnessPal on average 89.1% of days between baseline and post-intervention. Assignment to the intervention was not associated with changes in eating disorder risk, anxiety, depressive symptoms, body satisfaction, quality of life, nutritional intake, physical activity, screen time, or other forms of weight-related self-monitoring (all P > .05).


      Among dietary self-monitoring naive undergraduate women with low-risk of an eating disorder, dietary self-monitoring via MyFitnessPal for 1 month did not increase eating disorder risk, impact other aspects of mental health, or alter health behaviors including dietary intake. The null results in our study may be due to the selection of a low-risk sample; future research should explore whether there are populations for whom dietary self-monitoring is contraindicated.


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      S. L. Hahn is an NIMH T32 Eating Disorders Postdoctoral Fellow, Division of Epidemiology & Community Health, University of Minnesota School of Public Health, Minneapolis and Department of Psychiatry & Behavioral Sciences at the University of Minnesota Medical School. Minneapolis. At the time of the study, she was a doctoral candidate, Department of Nutritional Sciences, University of Michigan School of Public Health, Ann Arbor.


      N. Kaciroti is a research scientist, Department of Biostatistics, University of Michigan School of Public Health, Ann Arbor, and Department of Pediatrics, University of Michigan Medical School, Ann Arbor.


      D. Eisenberg is a professor, Department of Health Policy and Management, University of California Los Angeles School of Public Health, Los Angeles.


      H. M. Weeks is a senior statistician, Department of Nutritional Sciences, University of Michigan School of Public Health, Ann Arbor.


      K. W. Bauer is an Associate Professor from the Department of Nutritional Sciences, University of Michigan School of Public Health, Ann Arbor.


      K. R. Sonneville is an Associate Professor from the Department of Nutritional Sciences, University of Michigan School of Public Health, Ann Arbor.