Disclaimer: I am a straight, White, cisgender, heterosexual woman living in a small/thin body. I acknowledge that those privileges have shaped my experiences.
Once again our Government has embarked on a national campaign to put Britain on a diet. Despite nobody asking for it, and despite using exactly the same tactics which have failed produce results before, the ‘war on obesity’ is set to ramp up again. Proposals include GP-prescribed bike rides, a ban on junk food ads before 9pm, removing sweet treats from tills and printing calorie information on restaurant and takeaway menus.
As somebody who has lived with an eating disorder for nearly 15 years, and been in and out of treatment I despair of these new proposals which I know will do nothing to tackle the root causes of obesity, but will see people with eating disorders cast aside as collateral damage once again.
I was diagnosed with anorexia about 4 months after mandatory calorie labelling in supermarkets was introduced in 2006, and while there is no single cause of eating disorders, I strongly believe that the government’s anti-obesity campaign was a major driver behind the emergence of my anorexia.
I found myself completely obsessed with food labels, spending hours walking round and round the supermarket trying to figure out how I could eat fewer and fewer calories as every day went by. Calorie labels helped me stay on track with starving myself and I spiralled further and further into my anorexia, eventually winding up in A & E with heart and chest problems.
Like many eating disorder professionals, I have huge concerns that mandatory calorie labelling in restaurants and takeaways will have a dangerous impact on people with eating disorders. Going out to eat in a restaurant is a big step in eating disorder recovery: it is an example of learning to eat socially again, and of being able to cope without knowing exactly what is in your food. Adding calories to restaurant menus will make it even harder for us to re-learn how to have a normal relationship with food again.
And yet, despite the impact this will have, and despite multiple calls from therapists, people with lived experience of eating disorders and national eating disorder charity Beat, the government has refused to consult with any eating disorder experts on their new plans. When I looked at the list of names on the APPG on obesity, not a single person listed on there had any personal or professional experience of eating disorders.
We have simply been cast aside yet again. Our voices do not matter, even though eating disorders have the highest death rate of any mental illness.
When you are ill with an eating disorder you often find as many ways as you can to justify your behaviours to yourself. In fact, a study in 2008 found that several bulimic women regarded their purging behaviours as ‘healthy’ as they provided a means of weight management and staying slim. It’s an extreme example of how bad our weight rhetoric has become. Another example is how we diagnose restricting calories, obsessing over food and compulsive exercise as anorexia in somebody in an underweight body, but we applaud the same behaviours in somebody living in a larger body.
It’s really messed up.
Language is a huge part of the issue here too. Shame is also a huge driver for eating disorders, and especially binge eating behaviours. Phrases like ‘war on obesity’ and ‘lose weight, protect the NHS’ are really stigmatising and may make people living with obesity feel even more ashamed and pressured into losing weight. Strict dieting nearly always results in weight regain or binge eating behaviours as a result of the physical and mental impact of food deprivation. (See more here). If you are living with binge eating disorder, this new campaign has the potential to drive you even further into the cycle.
What the anti-obesity proposal also completely fails to consider is a) the root causes of obesity and b) the full range of complex genetic, environmental, social and behavioural factors which influence our weight. It really isn’t as simple as calories in and calories out. It seems to me like the Government is very keen to shift the blame for their catastrophic failings during the coronavirus crisis onto obesity and they don’t care who they hurt in the process.
For more information and support around eating disorders visit Beat’s website at https://www.beateatingdisorders.org.uk/
For media enquiries please contact me via Twitter: https://twitter.com/OpenMindMH