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No help but big potential harm from wearable body fat tests

There are so many devices available now, waiting to track different vitals and statistics about your body. Some of these features are useful, like heart rate, ECG, and fall detection. Some are less useful if not combined with actionable information, such as sleep monitoring and inaccurate blood oxygen tests. But what’s concerning now is the rise of portable body composition testing, which has the potential to do great harm without any obvious benefits.

Bioimpedance analysis, more commonly known as body composition tests, first made their way into people’s homes on smart body scales from companies like Withings and Fitbit. They’ve now made the jump to wearables, most notably on the new Samsung Galaxy Watch4. These tests say what percentage of your body is fat, muscle and bone.

Samsung’s Galaxy Watch4 can perform a body composition test on demand.

Samsung’s Galaxy Watch4 can perform a body composition test on demand.

This rise in popularity and portability has Danni Rowlands, National Manager of Prevention Services at The Butterfly Foundation, concerned.

“People who have personality traits that are competitive, perfectionist, high achieving, overly preoccupied or obsessive are likely to experience potential harm from these devices. They are especially concerning for those who are susceptible to or experiencing an eating disorder or disordered eating,” she said.

“The more fixated a person becomes with their weight, shape, body fat or size, the higher their risk of engaging in restrictive or extreme behaviours with their eating and exercise. When it comes to health, being obsessed or overly preoccupied with metrics can in fact be incredibly unhealthy.”

Danni Rowlands, manager of prevention services at the Butterfly Foundation.

Danni Rowlands, manager of prevention services at the Butterfly Foundation.

A lot of these body composition tests display the fat percentage with a smiley or frowny face, or in the case of the Galaxy Watch4 a coloured line, which shows light green for under-weight, green for ideal, and red when you’re “overweight”. The fact that it shows being under-weight with a positive colour and “overweight” with negative says a lot about the culture this tool is made for.

Those lines don’t take individual circumstances into account, but they sure can make a person feel bad and give them a desire to make that fat percentage number as small as possible. What makes that extra bad is that body composition tests are often wildly inaccurate. Research and tests from 2016 found results were often off by up to 21 per cent.

These devices glorify and value fat loss without educating on how having some fat is required to be healthy, how different body types and sizes are composed differently, and they don’t mention how most of these “healthy” BMI and fat metrics are based only around Anglo Saxon bodies.

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