Ill-advised and dangerous: the new anti-obesity campaign will do more harm than good

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Trigger Warning: Eating Disorders and Mental Health

On 27 July, the British Government announced its strategy to “tackle” obesity. Between the government’s “size as indicator of health” rhetoric and a focus on calories, it is no wonder many individuals and organisations such as BEAT, the UK’s leading eating disorder charity, are outraged.

The foundation of this strategy is essential the Body Mass Index (BMI), which defines what counts as obese with outdated measures. Recent studies have shown that factors of metabolic syndrome, such as elevated blood pressure and high cholesterol level, along with diet quality are greater predictors of poor health than BMI, which makes this outdated measure a very shaky foundation for this wholly out-of-touch campaign.

One of the most contested points of the new policy is adding calorie content information to menus in outlets with more than 250 employees to “help people make healthier choices”. This is an appalling idea: calories give no information as to how “healthy” or nutritious a meal is. Besides, calorie branding may not even fulfil its purpose of getting people to eat low-calorie meals, as BEAT’s anti-obesity report found that people suffering with Binge Eating Disorder (BED) are more likely to order a higher energy meal when the menu contains caloric information than they would with no calorie information displayed. Fussing over menus is a counterproductive strategy.

The campaign would also rely on weight loss apps and programs offered by the NHS which invite people to restrict their calorie intake through calorie counting. This could have disastrous effects on the health of those already suffering with eating disorders and the UK could see a spike of new cases. Contrary to popular belief, not everyone with an eating disorder is underweight, meaning that “overweight” people who suffer from ED’s will be negatively impacted by the new fundamentally flawed strategy. These individuals are likely to relapse because they are being encouraged to count calories, oftentimes an obsessive and harmful behaviour. Weight loss should never be a goal in eating disorder recovery, regardless of BMI.

The use of apps in this campaign also makes it impossible to recognise mental disorders for those who wish to lose weight. There is now even talk of weighing children in school to “make sure” they lose the weight they’ve gained during lockdown. It is completely normal to see weight fluctuation during stressful times; this act of shaming may lead children to develop insecurities about their bodies, when losing weight should be the last thing on a child’s mind. Being weighed at school could be the end of carefree acceptance of one’s own body for many kids and, tragically, the beginning of an eating disorder for others.

Eating disorders have the highest mortality rate of any mental illness, meaning this policy could be a veritable death sentence for many.

The government’s focus should be on treating the cause of obesity rather than trying to guilt people into losing weight. Diets, including calorie counting, simply do not work. Free mindful eating courses and a non-judgemental approach to food would be a step towards a future free from the current toxic culture of diet and restriction, which proves unhelpful and unsustainable for many. If the British government is interested in lowering the health risks associated with obesity, it must first stop perpetuating the simplistic myth that dieting and weight loss are the solution for all. As registered nutritionist Rhiannon Lambert continuously states, nutrition cannot be approached from the perspective of “one size fits all”.

What is most appalling is the government’s failure to acknowledge the link between socio-economic background and obesity rates. Brent, the English council with the highest obesity rates, is also the 9th poorest. Richmond on the other hand, a mere 10-miles away, is one of England’s wealthiest councils and has some of the lowest obesity rates in the country. Until those realities are acknowledged, we have no hope in decreasing the health risks associated with obesity.

Obesity isn’t a choice for most: it is the result of genetics, socio-economic background, environment, and mental and physical health. This strategy is a disgrace, putting the lives and well-being of many at risk. If the Government truly wants to reduce the health risks associated with obesity, it needs to focus on ending poverty in the UK, and creating an initiative built on the latest evidence-based research with a focus on education and balance.

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