Arguing against the government's new anti-obesity campaign

Amy Harris outlines her criticism of the government's new anti-obesity initiative

Amy Harris
6th August 2020
Image credit: Wikimedia
On the 27th July 2020, the government published a policy paper titled 'Tackling obesity: empowering adults and children to live healthier lives', which 'sets out the actions the government will take to tackle obesity and help adults and children to live healthier lives'. In this policy, the government outlines their plan to introduce calorie labelling on menus in all restaurants and cafes, so that people can make 'informed' choices when ordering food.

The new measures include introducing calorie labelling in restaurants, cafes, and takeaways with more than 250 employees, and launching a new weight loss app. The aim is to encourage weight loss and promote an "informed decision" to "fight obesity", by providing diners with numerical measurements (which will exclude the nutritional information) for greater transparency about the types of food they are eating.

As much as I understand the need to tackle unhealthy lifestyles and reduce obesity here in the UK, I do not agree with this new policy and the measures it outlines. Boris Johnson has already been accused of putting people with eating disorders at risk, with people going to Instagram and Twitter to share the devastating impact this will have on numerous groups of people.

In the UK, 1.25 million people are affected by eating disorders

Having seen what eating disorders and mental illness can do to an individual, I do not think this is the approach the government should be taking. In the UK, 1.25 million people are affected by eating disorders, and they are all crippling mental illnesses. Anorexia nervosa has the highest mortality rates of any mental health condition, yet this new policy will affect someone with anorexia considerably.

This is extremely triggering for those who don't have a healthy relationship with food

Already this year we have all dealt with a global pandemic, and for those with eating disorders and mental illnesses, it has had a massive impact. So, for the government to suddenly introduce a new policy for tackling obesity, but not consider how this could affect people and their relationship with food, is dangerous. This is extremely triggering for those who don't have a healthy relationship with food, especially for those who are in recovery and trying to overcome eating disorders.

Scientific evidence has shown how those with eating disorders that involve calorie counting, such as anorexia and bulimia, are more likely to order food with the lowest calorie count when the menu labels the calories in each dish. In contrast, those with a binge eating disorder are more likely to choose food that has the highest calorie count on the menu.

Furthermore, this isn't just triggering and dangerous for those with eating disorders, but for people who generally don't have a healthy relationship with food, this is going to be terrifying.

Instead of these measures, we should focus on healthy behavioural changes, and our individual relationships with food, and give confidence to those who are struggling, offering a way to help. Beat, an eating disorder charity, highlighted how the language chosen by the government is "blaming" people for being obese, eventhough some obese people actually have eating disorders. Eating disorders don't just include those who eat less, but also includes those that eat more, such as those with binge eating disorders. Therefore, using language that is shaming them can cause a lot of distress and worsen pre-existing issues with food. Individual people's relationships with food aren't just an individual choice; there are various factors involved in someone's food choices and the decision process.

Finally, an extremely dangerous aspect of these new measures is the weight loss app, which is also accessible to under 18s. This is dangerous for many young people who are suffering already from body image ideals, low self-esteem, and societal pressure. Already, young people tackle issues with puberty and fitting in with different expectations, especially weight. So, introducing an app where they can measure their food choices will promote unhealthy weight control behaviors in young adolescents.

If this new campaign does go ahead, although I really hope it doesn't, one thing I suggest is us all being there for those who will struggle the most. If you know someone who suffers from an eating disorder or appears uncomfortable when looking at a menu, offer to read it for them so they don't have to look at the calorie labels. There are numerous ways we can help those who will struggle the most as a result of this campaign, and don't be afraid to ask how you can assist. Even the smallest gesture can help those at risk.

Beat has created a template letter to send to the prime minister to tackle the public shaming surrounding this anti-obesity campaign.

Anyone affected by the issues raised in this article, can also head over to the Beat website for information on how to receive help and support regarding eating disorders.

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