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New obesity measures: the overlooked impact on eating disorder sufferers

At first glance, the government’s impending anti-obesity measures seem necessary – on further examination, however, the plans threaten to worsen already deadly disorders

By Kate Bowie, Second Year, English

Content warning: discusses eating disorders

The Croft Magazine // At first glance, the government’s impending anti-obesity measures seem necessary – on further examination, however, the plans threaten to worsen already deadly disorders.

The Conservatives recently released plans with measures to tackle obesity following the publication of new studies linking it to COVID-19 mortalities.

These measures include a ‘call-to-action’ for the nation to lose weight, the development of a ‘traffic light’ system for ‘healthy food choices’, and new legislation that will require calorie labels for all food packaging and menus.

At a first pass, these new measures may seem like a long-needed approach to what is, ostensibly, a public health crisis. The report highlights that almost two-thirds of British adults are above a healthy weight and one in three children leave primary school with obesity. Surely, then, these new policies can only help our unhealthy nation.

However, what the government seems to have overlooked is that over 1.25 million people in the UK live with eating disorders (or ‘EDs,’), a large part of whom are at school or university. COVID-19 has exacerbated this number, as demonstrated by the eating disorder charity Beat revealing a 72 per cent increase in demand for their services over lockdown.

While specifics vary between disorders, one commonality is the all-consuming mental presence of food. Much of the recovery process for EDs revolves around attempting to overcome the fear of foods, made harder by years of memorising caloric information from apps like ‘MyFitnessPal’.

When someone struggles to look at a rice cake without automatically translating it into a number, having the calories presented as (a) the first visible information, and (b) the most important part of a food, makes recovery near impossible.

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Update: Government anti-obesity proposals⠀ ⠀ Beat have criticised the measures set out by the Government to address obesity. Our asks to the Prime Minister and Public Health England to avoid the harms caused by previous anti-obesity campaigns have all been ignored: only using evidence-based tactics, avoiding the promotion of crash dieting and ensuring that eating disorder experts were consulted.⠀ ⠀ We urge the Government to carry out an immediate review of these dangerous proposals to ensure that people with eating disorders are not put at further risk. Read our statement here:⠀ ⠀ #PublicHealthNotPublicShaming #obesity #eatingdisorders #eatingdisorderawareness #eatingdisorderrecovery #anorexia #bulimia #bingeeating #arfid #osfed

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Moreover, eating at restaurants can already be an incredibly triggering experience for those with EDs. When these intrusive thoughts are materialised on menus, they become inescapable, making a catch-up with friends or a family celebration a potentially traumatic experience.

One anonymous second year student highlighted this concern: ‘I know that I won’t be able to eat at restaurants from now on without having serious anxiety. I’m just going to avoid it when I can’. They elaborated that ‘they’re trying to fix problems and just creating a bigger one’.

Another recovering student emphasised the worrying effects of these type of campaigns: ‘government campaigns that backed calorie counting to fight obesity was one of the main reasons my eating disorder developed.’ Testimonies like these can only emphasise the poorly thought-out reasoning behind the new measures.

As well as affecting those dealing with EDs, the campaign threatens to spread simplistic misinformation on a wide scale. A single set of caloric goals fails to account for the huge variation of body types among different people, such as the elderly and disabled.

In the twenty-first century world of low paying jobs and cheap fast food, malnutrition comes in the form of obesity

Furthermore, the proposed ‘traffic light system’ reinforces damaging ideas about the moral property of food as ‘good’ or ‘bad’. To add insult to injury, numerous studies have found that most consumers do not base their food choices on caloric value – in reality, these measures will primarily affect those already hyper-aware of that information.

As the report states, ‘obesity prevalence is highest amongst the most deprived groups in society. Children in more deprived parts of the country are more than twice as likely to be obese as their peers living in the richest areas’. The government, then, knows the root cause of this country’s obesity epidemic: inequality.

Poverty has always bred malnutrition, and in the twenty-first century world of low paying jobs and cheap fast food, that malnutrition comes in the form of obesity. In failing to address the real causes of obesity, the new measures avoid actually addressing the issue while simultaneously exacerbating others.

Ultimately, the government needs to consult with mental health specialists before implementing potentially detrimental policies. These measures are surface level at best, and deadly at worst.

For information, advice and support on living with an eating disorder, see the following resources:

Beat - The UK's Eating Disorder Charity / Helpline 0808 801 0677 / Studentline 0808 801 0811


Anorexia & Bulimia Care

Featured image: Epigram / Rosie Angel-Clark

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