Google Released, Then Quietly Rolled Back, This Harmful Calorie-Counting Feature

Mini cupcakes might be cute, but Google’s disregard for the wellbeing of people with eating disorders isn’t.

Bex vanKoot
Oct 18, 2017 · 5 min read

I was nine when I first started trying to lose weight, a crash diet designed for heart patients. I was only supposed to follow for a week, and it involved eating a lot of terrible cabbage soup. For two decades after, I did everything in my power to be thin, to feel in control my body. Twice I lost more than 100 pounds, obsessing over food every second of every day and completely unable to accomplish anything else. Both times, when I couldn’t obsess over food for any longer, I gained the weight back.

For the past five years, I’ve been trying to unlearn all that. I have been trying to encourage myself to eat breakfast when I wake up in the morning, instead of waiting until 3 in the afternoon when I can’t ignore hunger pangs any longer. I have worked tirelessly to stop thinking about everything I do in terms of the calories I burn, to stop thinking about every piece of food I eat in terms of what I deserve thanks to the calories I’ve burned. It has taken years of work to stop feeling as if food is something my body needs to earn, as if nourishment is something I need to ask for permission to give myself.

So it should come as no surprise that I was not happy when, pulling up Google Maps for walking directions on my phone, I was met with this.

A Google representative confirmed by email that they had quietly “rolled out an experiment on our Google Maps iOS app that would show how many calories someone burns when walking a certain route.” The feature appeared for many, but not all users, in the step-by-step walking directions, as well as on driving directions for distances Google somehow deemed short enough to walk. On October 16th, this feature was removed from the app, and the company still has not released an official statement about either decision.

The Google rep cited user feedback as their reason for removing the feature, but if they had such overwhelmingly negative feedback before even announcing the feature anywhere officially, how did it end up on iPhones in the first place? The Google rep I spoke with didn’t answer any of my questions about how or why this feature came to be, or why it wasn’t optional, but I have a few ideas.

Only 20% of Google engineers are women. How many of those women do you think are in a position to express a dissenting opinion about something like this and have it taken seriously by their (mostly male) peers?

As many as one in ten women will suffer from an eating disorder in her lifetime. Trans women are especially at risk, with nearly one in six exhibiting symptoms. Of all people with mental illness, those with eating disorders are the most likely to die as a direct result of their illness. And people who suffer from a specific, diagnosed mental illness are just the tip of the iceberg. In fact, a 2008 survey found that 75% of American women exhibit some kind of disordered eating behavior.

While men too have eating disorders, it’s at a much lower rate. Men’s experiences with diet culture are not tied into systemic expectations of sexual availability, paired with an invisibility that demands women, femmes, and nonbinary people take up as little space as possible, and defer our needs to those of the men around us.

“Relating calories burned during physical activity to calories consumed in eating promotes the myth that we could — and should — get rid of our calories through exercise,” says says Dr. Alexis Conason, a licensed psychologist and eating disorder specialist. “We may feel shame if we have eaten more than we burned, like we don’t have permission to eat if we haven’t exercised enough that day,restrict our food intake, or say ‘screw it’ and binge if we aren’t going to meet our calorie deficit goals for the day anyways.”

Technology that confronts us with this information can make it impossible for vulnerable individuals to get the nourishment we need. Aside from perpetuating overly simplistic ideas about food, digestion, energy, and consumption, they can trigger unhealthy behavior in people with eating disorders, people recovering from eating disorders, and anyone who is at risk of developing an eating disorder.

This is exactly the problem with Google’s decision to release this “experiment” of a feature onto unwitting and unwilling users. Someone, somewhere, thought this might be fun, or cute, or helpful for someone else. And that person either didn’t consider that it could be harmful to others, or they didn’t care, because they expected us to be in the minority.

Let’s get real here. You might think this feature was fun or cute — though I would point out to you that “features” which you can’t turn off aren’t really features to begin with. Unfortunately, even if it wasn’t harmful to you, it probably isn’t useful for you either.

For starters, Google isn’t a fitness app. It doesn’t know how much you weigh, or how hard your heart beats when you walk. It doesn’t even know how fast you walk, because the estimate is given at the start of the route. We know that fitness trackers, even when they have all the information we can easily collect through a wristband, are notoriously inaccurate.

Our best guess why? Because like Google and so many other tech companies, it seems they probably didn’t bother to test it out on a sufficiently diverse group. So even if Google did have all this information, the calorie count it gave was a gross estimate at best. Without it, there is absolutely no way it can even pretend to be accurate.

“Google rolling out this program is emblematic of the dysfunctional thinking around health and weight that is rampant in our culture,” Conason says. “Unless we work to change the diet-culture mentality that these tech companies are immersed in, it will be difficult to prevent these types of harmful features from being rolled out in the future.”

Changing that culture means prioritizing the voices of the people whom it marginalizes. It means consulting us on things that will impact us, instead of waiting for us to complain to you after. Conason suggests, “If a tech company is considering rolling out a new health feature, it may be prudent to consult with eating disorder experts to ensure that the program won’t do harm.”

We can certainly hope.

Bex vanKoot

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writer, photog, nerd, sjw, unicorn enthusiast, wannabe vampire+nazi slayer, and recent oxford comma convert /////// creations @lonelyplanet @playboy & more