Hope Virgo, Author and Mental Health Campaigner
All over the papers, twitter, Instagram, TVs… there is conversation around dieting! We are being told to “shake off our lockdown lard”. From Dr Michael Mosely’s program on how to lose a stone in 21 Days to Boris Johnson “waging a war on obesity” we are creating a society where “fat” is viewed as negative! We are judging one another, questioning other people’s weight as playing a huge role in Covid19. In fact, conversations around weight, food and dieting is something that has been so present throughout the whole of lockdown; this obsession with food, exercise, baking banana bread to the increase in people sharing their fitness activities everywhere. Whilst for so many this conversation means nothing, there are others who will read these headlines, see these posts and struggle. Struggle to feel heard, struggle to know what to do. People who have perhaps had a difficult relationship with food their entire life and as a result are at now at war with themselves.
I had anorexia as a child and whilst I am now 11 years in to recovery it is still challenging when these messages are flying around everywhere. You might post a picture of your run on Instagram, or an MP might make a sweeping statement about obesity, but these messages impact me.
On 27 July the Government launched their plans to tackle Obesity but what they failed to take in to account was that with an estimated 1.25 million Brits suffering from eating disorders, what is proposed as a “common-sense approach” – focusing on weight and calorie counting – is incredibly destructive.
Effective empowerment means equipping people with information to make better informed choices. While it is true that providing calorific information may have been useful for some, it is important to realise that for those suffering from eating disorders, this sets entirely the wrong precedent. Further to this, evidence has shown that 1 in 4 people who restrict go on to develop an eating disorder and 95% of diets fail!
Regrettably, the Government’s strategy risks becoming a “one size fits none” model which does more harm than good. Add to that the fact that for those with eating disorders, calorie counting does nothing more than create a cycle of guilt and self-hatred. Calorie counting in and of itself does not lead to healthy outcomes and so instead of becoming fixated on a number we need to be focusing on wider health messages.
Since the announcement of the strategy I have been inundated with messages from people with eating disorders, parents, teachers and even friends who are saying that how can they even think to go out for dinner and enjoy it if calories are plastered left right and centre?
“Please don’t let this happen it’s the worst thing to trigger someone with an eating disorder. Whilst on holiday in the States a month before my daughter was diagnosed with Anorexia was a very very difficult time with eating in restaurants so stressful as my daughter would always pick the meal that showed the lowest calorie number on the menu, & trying to change her decision always ended in tears. Even if someone doesn’t have an eating disorder it’s going to trigger unhealthy eating & unnecessary dieting”
Eating disorders have the highest mortality rate out of any psychiatric disorder, but yet we still are so set on creating wars with our own bodies creating a minefield each day for people to juggle their way through.
I know that we are currently in an obesity crisis, but we need to be changing our messaging around diets, weight and food. Instead of scaremongering people around food we need to look at individuals in a more holistic way taking in to account their background, social differences…
I recently wrote a joint letter to PHE and Matt Hancock MP with over 60 signers and suggested six things they need to reconsider:
Review the evidence around calorie counting and dieting;
Invest in educational programs so that individuals feel empowered to make positive decisions and achieve a healthier lifestyle;
Move away from health metrics based on weight and BMI;
Remove calories from menus;
Agree to assess the reasons behind an individual’s weight; and
Put together a focus group with stakeholders with eating disorders, health issues, and nutritionists to discuss the plans more forward.
The evidence is clear, calorie counting and dieting doesn’t work and whilst it might seem like a quick cheap fix to start labelling calories on menus we need to be re-thinking this. Looking at educational campaigns: these will teach individuals about a healthy lifestyle and not about punishing or restriction.
We need to be working in schools and across communities to help people understand about food. I do a huge amount of work in schools and without a shadow of a doubt, every school I go in to kids will say to me “I want to look like X, so I don’t eat” “By not eating it will make life better” “I can’t eat that because it will make me fat”. These campaigns and catchy slogans further push this fear among our young people. Leaving them so uncertain about what to do when it comes to food and their bodies. We need to be equipping them with the positives of foods, looking at making a plate colourful not bland.
And finally it is essential that we explore the route issues around food and weight. Eating disorders come in all shapes and sizes and for some people who may have a larger BMI, they might be struggling with their mental health. By only talking about weight we are not taking in to account the whole person. Instead we need to offering a holistic approach to care.
We need to act quickly so that we don’t allow the Government’s obesity strategy to create a society which is fixated on numbers!
If you would like to sign the petition and support Hope Virgo with this campaign you can do so here with CHANGE.ORG