Stephanie Zerwas, the clinical director of the Center of Excellence for Eating Disorders at the University of North Carolina, was trying to find a restaurant in Orlando last weekend, so she put the address into Google Maps for directions.
She was baffled to see a new feature: The iPhone app told her that walking instead of driving would burn 70 calories. While it was perhaps meant as an incentive to walk, those with eating disorders would instead fixate on the number, a dangerous mind-set that counselors try to minimize, she said.
“We’ve gotten into this habit of thinking about our bodies and the foods we take in and how much activity we do as this mathematical equation, and it’s really not,” she said. “The more we have technology that promotes that view, the more people who may develop eating disorders might be triggered into that pathway.”
On Monday night, Google pulled the feature, which it said was an experiment on its iOS app. The decision followed a wave of attention on social media; while some of the responses saw Google’s feature as promoting exercise, there were several complaints that it was dangerous or insulting.
Some users were especially upset that the app used mini cupcakes to put the burned calories into perspective, framing food as a reward for exercise, or exercise as a prerequisite for food. (One mini cupcake, it said, was worth a little less than 125 calories, but no information was provided about how that calculation was made.)
Calorie counting has long been a contentious topic at the nexus of nutrition, exercise and eating disorders. In New York, among other cities, some restaurants are required to post calorie numbers on their menus and displays, an effort the Trump administration is trying to overturn. The Affordable Care Act required some national restaurants to do the same, though the Food and Drug Administration repeatedly delayed the implementation.
The practice is intended to encourage Americans to eat more thoughtfully and limit their intake of high-calorie food, as the nation battles widespread obesity. A recent study in The New England Journal of Medicine found that 12.5 percent of children were obese, up from 5 percent in 1980. Overall, 26.5 percent of the U.S. population is obese.
But critics have argued that calorie-counting is an ineffective strategy to change eating habits. And Claire Mysko, the chief executive of the National Eating Disorders Association, said in an interview that calorie counts “can become a point of obsession” to those with eating disorders.
“For some people, that’s not an issue at all,” she said. “But for people who are hyper-focused on numbers, that can feel very oppressive to see calorie counts everywhere when you’re trying to shift your relationship with food.”
If Google wanted to promote walking, it could have framed it “in terms of strength and how it makes you feel,” Ms. Mysko said.
Since Google knows how the weather is in your area, it could suggest walking on nice days, Dr. Zerwas said.
“Let’s encourage it because it’s fun, it feels good, it helps you think and you can enjoy the gorgeous weather,” she said.