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‘Empowering Adults and Children’ An Opposition to the Government’s Calorie-centric Stance

Updated: May 5, 2021

Trigger warning:

This article mentions calorie counting, BMI, disordered eating and eating disorders in light of the government's new obesity-tackling proposals.

If the following topics are something you find triggering, follow the links posted here for UK-based support services you may find helpful:

July 27 2020, the government released an anticipated new proposal to tackle obesity, claiming the measures they intend to introduce will 'empower adults and children to live healthier lives.'

Now that is debatable.

The introduction of this strategy coincides with the Prime Minister's 'wake-up call' following his three-night intensive care admission with COVID-19, which he claims he may well have avoided if at a lower weight.

Amongst these proposed measures, one of the most contentious and problematic mandates: restaurants, cafes and takeaways 'with more than 250 employees' are to display calorie labels on all the food they sell.

Additionally, GPs will be able to prescribe 12-week weight-loss diets (monitored by a new app) and programmes such as Weight Watchers (WW) and Slimming World.

Also listed is their intention to show "hidden liquid calories" on alcoholic drinks, terminology which will undoubtedly be familiar to those with experience in Eating Disorders, whether through their illness or as a clinician.

Maybe to some, these proposed changes sound reasonable; after all, we're bombarded by weight loss endorsements and reminded of Boris Johnson's so-called 'war on obesity' on a more-than weekly basis.

This article suggests why these proposals may cause harm. Introducing them will jeopardise the recovery of many people suffering from eating disorders and increase the stigma for people with a higher BMI, amongst other damaging (and avoidable) outcomes.

Statistics show an estimated 1.25 million people in the UK suffer from an eating disorder, with 6.4% of adults displaying signs, according to eating disorder charity BEAT. The dangers associated with eating disorders mean these illnesses are responsible for more loss of life than any other mental health condition. Anorexia Nervosa has the highest mortality rate of any psychiatric disorder.

Still, you may question if there is a tangible link between efforts to limit obesity and the negative impact on eating disorder sufferers. The reality is that numbers and measurements play a central role in the continuation of illness for many sufferers. From the 'recommended' serving size on food packets, the difference between low-calorie and regular soft drinks, and not forgetting the dreaded BMI measures, a strong desire to monitor and decrease such numbers is central to the experience of illness for many individuals.

As BEAT Chief Executive Andrew Radford says: 'It is worrying to see a renewed emphasis on measures such as calorie labelling, as evidence clearly shows that these risk exacerbating eating disorders of all kinds.'

In support of Radford's stance, many eating disorder and body positivity activists stress the detrimental impact this will have on sufferers.

In response to the recent announcement, author and multi-award winning campaigner Hope Virgo launched a petition calling for government's reconsideration of these measures, along with the social media hashtag: #curbthecount.

This latest development continues Virgo's powerful message in her ongoing movement 'Dump the Scales.' In this initiative, Virgo calls for an end to practitioners using weight as the sole determinant of whether a person should receive treatment for their mental illness, as well as many other aims to ensure fair treatment for all sufferers.

At the time of writing, the Dump the Scales petition on has received over 100,000 signatures.

So, what will these changes mean for those who fall into the category of ‘obese’? The government argues that the introduction of more visible calories in restaurants will play a part in reducing people's daily intake. A headline in The Telegraph, which captured the attention of the public, quotes health secretary Matt Hancock stating that if everyone deemed 'overweight' loses 5lbs we can save the NHS £100 million.

There are many reasons why these proposed outcomes are problematic. Anti-obesity campaigns create a culture of shame and guilt in a society already plagued by diet culture. However, the introduction of these measures brings this to a whole new level of scrutiny.

A particular danger with this narrative is the attempted moralising of the pandemic. We cannot allow COVID-19 to become a fable to stigmatise obesity which blames people at a higher weight for the dramatic rise in UK cases.

What we do know for sure, however, is that obesity is an issue which disproportionately affects people living in poverty. To tackle obesity, the government must address food poverty and enable all people to access a range of nutrient-dense foods.

These new guidelines go so far as to acknowledge that obesity reflects the 'environment we live in' and 'the information we are given to make choices.' One of the issues with this message is that it perpetuates a limited understanding of nutrition; food is so much more than calories.

So, how can you make an informed choice when you're only given half the picture? This doesn't sound like the 'fair deal' these measures are promoting.

Ultimately, shame is never an effective way to create positive change. Guilt and shame are at the heart of disordered eating tendencies, so why encourage such toxic ideas on a national scale? Sharing meals with friends is something that should be fun but calorie counting at the table is far from joyful.

I'm not going to pretend that I have the answers, but I know that fixing a relationship with food requires listening, kindness and sensitivity. The importance of addressing the socio-economic and mental health factors that so often lead to obesity should not be forgotten; neither can the needs of Eating Disorder sufferers.

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