Why adding a calorie counter to Google Maps was a dangerous mistake


Google Maps tested a feature that estimated the calories you’d burn walking a route rather than taking a car or train — and, controversially, measured the potential activity level in mini cupcakes. Google announced on Tuesday that the feature was being removed.

The decision was a result of “strong user feedback,” a spokesperson told TechCrunch, which may have included the bevy of comments from social media users who criticized the feature for possibly encouraging unhealthy behavior.

The feature, which couldn’t be turned off, automatically converted 110 potential calories burned to one mini cupcake. It estimated that a walk to the moon equals 1.4 billion tiny cupcakes.

“Not a healthy way to promote exercise,” community organizer Mia McDonald wrote on Twitter. “This is bad and really triggering for some people with eating disorders,” tweeted CNN tech reporter Selena Larson.

Experts said they were concerned the feature could force some of Google Maps’ 1 billion or more users to think about their health in over-simplified numbers.

“This can definitely be harmful. Inherently, by tying numbers to food, it can cause some type of obsession over walking and burning calories,” Courtney Simpson, a doctoral candidate in psychology at the Virginia Commonwealth University, said by phone. “We have research to support the idea that individuals with diagnosed eating disorders tend to be very obsessive about these numbers.”

In a 2017 preliminary study of 493 college students, Simpson found a unique association between the use of fitness tracking apps and devices and symptoms of eating disorders. So the potential for damage is high, especially when an app as widespread as Google Maps forces calorie counters on the estimated 8 million people with eating disorders in the U.S.

“For someone with an eating disorder, it can actually become fuel for the fire.”

Basically, mentioning cupcakes earned or burned can throw vulnerable people back into dangerous behaviors. For those with eating disorders, that could play out as restricted food intake, binges and purges, over-exercising — and then the long list of psychological symptoms that come with these illnesses.

“Even just small comments — talk of weight, calories, dieting — can trigger eating disorder thoughts and can send someone back into disordered behavior,” Samantha DeCaro, assistant clinical director of the Renfrew Center for Eating Disorders in Philadelphia, said by phone. “A big part of treatment is trying to stop the obsession. Calorie counters can be useful for people who aren’t vulnerable to eating disorders. But for someone with an eating disorder, it can actually become fuel for the fire.”

It’s not just about people with eating disorders

In a nation that markets diet pills, magical girdles and expensive fat-sucking surgeries, it’s possible that Google’s calorie counter could hurt anybody — not just those with a diagnosed eating disorder.

“A feature like this perpetuates diet culture,” DeCaro said. “It perpetuates an unhealthy relationship with exercise. Exercise really isn’t meant to be a punishment for eating food, and health isn’t just about weight and burning calories.”

For an app as detailed as Google Maps, the feature isn’t all that accurate, either. It tallies calories burned by assuming that the average person burns 90 calories burned for every mile walked. More advanced calorie-counting apps would ask for a user’s sex, height and weight to come up with that total.

“That sounds completely inaccurate. It’s sort of this cookie cutter-type approach where they’re not taking into consideration the individual,” DeCaro said. “It sounds like bad math to me and I don’t think it’s something that would help anybody. It really just has the potential to harm.”

Certainly, people who are compelled to track calories — but perhaps shouldn’t — can just download another app. But the difference here is that Google didn’t make it a choice. According to DeCaro, patients entering the Renfrew Center are usually asked upfront about what they’re seeing on social media.

“We ask, ‘What are the apps, what are the things you’re following on Instagram, on Facebook that are really going to make recovery harder for you?’” she said. “We live in a digital age and we have to think about, you know, what things the patient is drawn to. ... We always have to have a broad conversation about what you’re inviting into your life and what’s fueling your disorder.”