By Lucy Haslam
A policy paper titled ‘Tackling obesity’ was published by the government on the 27th of July, in response to COVID-19 and the 8% of COVID hospitalisations happening to ‘obese’ people. The policy aims to empower adults and children to ‘live healthier lives’; a completely fair and reasonable objective. This objective is, however, over-simplified and omits a very harmful section of the paper: the introduction of calorie-labelled menus and the encouragement of calorie counting. It is not a ‘healthy choice’ to force the calorific content of a meal on to the 3.4 million people suffering from eating disorders (EDs) in the UK.
EDs are regularly misunderstood, and subsequently normalised and/or glamorised. An eating disorder is not a choice, it is actually a brain-based, biological, mental illness stemming from a host of genetic, psychological and environmental factors. They can affect anyone regardless of age, race, gender, culture, income or sexual orientation. Body dissatisfaction and attempts to lose weight are intersectional. We live in a ‘sizeist’ society that believes only visually skinny or thin people could have an eating disorder; this myth needs to be debunked. You do not need to, nor should you have to, prove that you are sick.
The government introduced calorie labelling in restaurants and cafés in an effort to help people make more ‘informed’ choices. Informed, in this instance, implies lowering your calories and induces shame in restaurants, and other places of indulgence. Not only will this attitude stay in restaurants, it will leak into the rest of our daily decisions. The government are effectively promoting calorie counting, a common trigger for disordered eating behaviours, as well as helping to normalise intermittent fasting, fad dieting, obsessive workout routines and the notion that being fat is the equivalent to being lazy, whilst simultaneously glorifying lithe ‘model’ bodies. Restrictive eating can also predict the onset of eating disorders. To put it simply, the government are perpetuating eating disorders and fostering a fertile environment for them to grow.
Further to this, the current government have systemically underfunded and devalued mental health services in the NHS, which therefore includes eating disorder services. This lack of funding will likely mean that the NHS will not have the capacity to cope with potentially rising cases and people will not receive the treatment they require.
This new hostile environment created by the government is compounded by the existing promotion of ‘healthy bodies’ in the media and everyday life. Unattainable standards of beauty are frequently portrayed in magazines and the media, encouraging body dissatisfaction and allowing the ‘fake fit/dieting’ industry to boom. Young people are especially affected by the pursuit of perfection, and there is a constant scrutinisation of body image, as well as lots of active comparisons to bodies, in the media.
To further add to this, there is already huge stigma attached to EDs and a feeling of shame that comes with admitting to them or seeking help. It is important to remember that it is NOT something developed to seek attention or popularity - such an assumption can create an extremely hostile environment for those experiencing it. Large proportions of the population, which now seems to include the government, assume that an eating disorder is something you can ‘snap out of’; such an attitude is perpetuated by phrases such as “just eat”. It is safe to say that a lot of the stigma surrounding EDs stems from a lack of understanding. As suggested by the BEAT report, the UK government should work alongside eating disorder professionals to help inform safer eating guidelines and increase awareness and education.
The government should also consider addressing how systemic class and race inequality contribute to food insecurity and ‘fatness’, instead of placing the blame on the individual. For many years, the government has failed to encourage healthy and sustainable relationships with food and exercise, as well as failing to address the 1.2 million people in the UK who live in ‘food deserts.’ They are doing nothing to address how food insecurity causes ill health. Arguably, this should be the government's first priority, before pursuing policies of harmful calorie labelling.
I do not want this article to appear as a rant or a government attack, especially as large parts of the policy paper are helpful and informative in tackling obesity and empowering people to live healthier lives, such as the £50 gift voucher given out to fix your bike, or the emphasis on walking where you can and the extra funding for physical education in schools. Obviously not everyone has to follow these guidelines, nor be really athletic, but it provides a good starting point for healthier and more sustainable lives. There does, however, need to be considerable research into disordered eating, and how to provide impactful and emphatic help, which includes channelling extra funding into mental health services and obviating calorie labelling from the paper as effective ways to promote healthy lifestyles.
A polite reminder to be patient, kind and supportive, always.