About the UK Government’s ‘anti-obesity’ campaign… and it’s implications

Trigger warning: calorie talk.

SO the government has launched a campaign to ‘fight obesity’. I have some concerns to this phrasing to start off with, suggesting that they are waging a war on people who are overweight and telling them that they are in the wrong. There are a lot of people who, at this point, will jump in and say “But being overweight isn’t good for your health!”. However, it is also not good for your health to be dieting on and off throughout your life (it puts more strain on your heart than being overweight does). As well as this, the majority of diets do not work. The UK diet industry is worth around £2 billion and it sells the idea of being ‘happier’ when you’re ‘skinny’. 95% of diets end in weight gain, frustration, depression and stress. The diet industry are going to want you to keep coming back to them and giving them your money as that’s what the business is really about; money. People who are overweight already experience abuse in a variety of forms and this just encourages that.

Health and wellbeing look different on different people. There are some extremely healthy people who are overweight and some extremely unhealthy people who are thin. Health does not have a size and BMI.. (oh, BMI) is a tool that has been proven to be inaccurate (for example, it doesn’t take into account your muscle and muscle is heavier
than fat; so if you’re very muscular, there’s a reasonably good chance that you will have a high BMI. A person’s health is much more than just how much they weigh when they step on those scales. It’s much more than measuring their waists and hips. Health is complex, multi-dimensional and very individual; if we all ate and exercised the same, we would still all look different! It isn’t a one size fits all.

Amongst various actions in this campaign, they have also required that the menus of restaurants and cafés around the UK should have the calories of each dish written down for all to see – mainly the larger chains (all the more reason to support local, independent ones!) in an effort for people to reduce their calorie intake. This has made me really quite angry for a number of reasons. Fixating on numbers and calories is a trait that is very common with eating disorders, particularly anorexia, bulimia and orthorexia – amongst many others. It’s in the same realm of counting calories. Restricting calories. Restricting what you eat and, therefore, restricting your life (no, I’m not being dramatic as anorexia nervosa has the highest mortality rate of any mental health condition).

Counting calories and studying those food labels are classic signs of eating disorders; particularly anorexia, bulimia, orthorexia and others as people with these conditions do this as an attempt to keeping the numbers as low as possible and therefore starving themselves. Constant weighing can also lead to triggering people as it reinforces the idea that numbers determine who they are. Numbers of calories, numbers on the scales, numbers on food packets, number of minutes or sets whilst exercising – everything in life becomes about numbers. Imagine, trying to get away from the numbers that dictate your life (have I said ‘numbers’ too much?) to find that when you go out to eat, you are surrounded by – guess what? – more numbers! (I think I have officially overused the word ‘numbers’ now.)

According to Beat, there are around 1.25 million people in the UK with some sort of eating disorder and many more who are following disordered eating habits which can then turn into eating disorders. I’ve been in recovery from anorexia for a few years now and, even though I’m happy to eat freely, whenever I go somewhere to eat and see the calories in a meal… it makes me stop and think. It sometimes changes my mind on what I eat. It sometimes makes me have this internal debate with myself with feeling of guilt afterwards “I’m supposed to be recovered, why am I even thinking this right now?” The thought of having this internal debate with myself every. single. time. I go out to eat simply terrifies me. It terrifies me as I think of the other hundreds of thousands of people who may be thinking the same thing. This is a recipe for disaster. There is already a strain on the mental health services in the UK, and this move will create even longer waiting lists for those with eating disorders, depression, anxiety and more (it’s already a 4 month wait in some areas – a lot can happen in 4 months and so help and support needs to be readily available).

Having the number of calories on every single packet of food can be hard enough for those battling an eating disorder. The thing is: when you go out to enjoy a meal, that’s all it should be about!

You go out to eat to enjoy the food, not to make yourself feel guilty about consuming ‘x’ amount of calories.

There’s so much enjoyment when it comes to meal times. After not being able to eat for a year, you really learn this. Eating shouldn’t be about the calories or carbs or fat or sugar that you consume. Eating should be about enjoying your food, sharing food with your loved ones, enjoying social occasions. SO much has been stolen from us already this year, we can’t let our enjoyment of eating out be taken away from us as well. Because this will trigger so many people into eating disorders or to relapse. I remember when I was 15 years old and I had enjoyed a nice lunch with my mum. Later on that day, I had discovered how many calories I had eaten and I just collapsed, crying, shaking, refusing to eat anymore that day. That was the biggest argument we’ve ever had. We can’t allow this to happen anymore to anyone. We can’t keep making mealtimes just about calories. Food is food at the end of the day, that’s it.

Our bodies burn around 1200+ calories a day by just existing. Even if you sat in bed all day, your body would still burn calories so you still need to eat. If you have less than this amount, your body goes into starvation mode – which is more unhealthy than being overweight and more damaging to your body. Your brain runs on carbohydrates – it needs readily available glucose to run efficiently and effectively so, unless you have a valid medical reason which is overseen by a doctor and/or dietician, you can’t cut carbohydrates out of your diet. Fat is needed to give your body further energy and it supports cell growth, keeps your body warn, protects your organs, helps to absorb nutrients and produce essential hormones. We need calories, we need carbohydrates and sugar and we need fat. I do understand why the Government are trying to improve our health but this is not the right way to go about it.

There isn’t always an easy answer or an easy solution as everyBODY is different. It is, at the end of the day, all about moderation. Sometimes you can eat really healthily. That’s fine. Sometimes you can eat really unhealthily. That’s fine too! Instead of body shaming people who are overweight, how about we change the way we see food? How about we stop making it an enemy? How about we introduce cooking in schools as an essential subject up until GCSEs? Encourage people to take the time to create recipes and buy fresh food? How about schools really reinforce trust and improve children’s relationship with food, rather than making food the enemy? Put the focus on wellbeing and away from weight. Put the focus on the taste of food and away from the calorie counts. We survived thousands of years without calorie counting – we still don’t need it now.

This will really damage our relationship when it comes to food. It will not make us see food as food, it will just reduce it down to numbers. I cannot stress this enough. Please sign Hope Virgo’s petition to #CurbTheCount. Please. 

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