I watched with an all too familiar sense of horror as yet another TV programme hit the screens with unrelenting messages about weight loss. This time it was Dr Michael Mosley’s Channel 4 programme, How to Lose A Stone in 21 Days. As someone who was in hospital for a year with anorexia, it brought so many destructive feelings flooding back.
Of course, I totally get that some people benefit from losing weight. And I understand why the government has launched its anti-obesity strategy. But what I don’t get is why the messages are so overwhelmingly negative. It’s all so restrictive – cut back on calories, lose weight. There’s nothing balanced about it. Why aren’t we talking more positively about food and the good calories we need to consume?
Being so one-sided in these communications (which are not just reaching people classed as obese, but also the 1.25 million Brits who are struggling with eating disorders) will do more harm than good. It’s like asking somebody struggling with anorexia to binge on calories. Surely more positive messages about food will help those of us who need to gain, as well as lose weight? And not only that, a more positive relationship with food will surely be a more sustainable one? One that is neutral.
The programme began immediately with references to “lockdown belly”, shaming people who may have put weight on. We are in a pandemic – changes in weight should not be something we are beating ourselves up over. One person made reference to being lonely and that had caused her to increase her weight. Another person was experiencing grief. Perhaps we should be looking at those symptoms and dealing with wider issues not only focusing on the individual’s weight.
Lockdown has created a perfect storm for people with eating disorders, and it is these people that are likely to tune in to programmes like this. Listening to Dr Mosley and his wife giving tips on losing weight, and how to fill up on other things, was heart-breaking. I thought back to the girl I was 11 years ago who would have been sitting there listening and making note of all this.
The government’s obesity strategy communicates its aims in a similarly destructive way. There’s so much emphasis on counting calories and listing them on menus. This can be triggering for people struggling with disordered eating. I know this first hand as, when I was a teenager and at the height of my illness, counting calories was a major part of my life. It’s a habit that is incredibly difficult to get out of, and seeing its message reinforced time and again only serves to trigger those experiences and behaviours. Not only this, but it normalises conversations about calories which can be extremely dangerous for people with eating disorders.
You might argue that people struggling with eating disorders are only a small proportion of the population. That’s true, but the impact on their lives is significant. Anorexia is just one type of eating disorder, but it has a mortality rate of 10 per cent, which is incredibly high. Unbalanced messaging that feeds into the behaviours that drive the illness is therefore incredibly dangerous. But even within the wider population, I still believe the messages for people trying to lose weight could be more considered. We have created a world where disordered eating is the norm and this in itself is extremely dangerous.
Why not take a more holistic, less black and white approach to tackling the obesity crisis? The current conversation about calories and weight are landing within a context of diet culture and fat shaming – where unrealistic body image is the norm. Combined, this creates a toxic problem that could do far more harm than good. Are we really okay with creating a world where it feels impossible for so many to recover from eating disorders? And where children are going to walk into a restaurant and be faced with calories on menus?
I urge the government to reconsider its strategy and incorporate more positive messaging. To provide a more rounded approach to educating people about food and a balanced diet, starting with schools and community groups, working with food banks to ensure that they have healthy food for families and that people know how to cook with them. And to consider providing more focus on the good things we can and should eat, rather than simply focusing on consuming less.
For some people, what they eat, when and how much can be driven by their mood and mental health. Learning how to understand the links between mental health and eating habits could also be a significant step forward and wouldn’t need a focus on numbers.
My message is not to stop obese people getting help. It’s not to stop the government’s anti-obesity campaign. I just want to see a more considered, nuanced approach that recognises the complexities involved in our relationship with food. After all, we need more of the good stuff to survive and thrive.
Hope Virgo is an eating disorder awareness campaigner. You can sign her petition urging the government to rethink plans to list calories on menus here.