On the 27th July, the British government announced plans to tackle obesity, with measures including a ban on ‘buy one get one free’ deals for unhealthy food, restricting junk food adverts on television, and a national campaign to lose weight.
The irony of the government clamping down on fast food the week before Rishi Sunak sends us all a voucher for £10 off at Nando’s aside – the measures have raised significant concern amongst body positivity and eating-disorder awareness groups, such as the Food and Drink Federation and the UK’s eating disorder charity, Beat.
The public reception has called the new approach tone-deaf and argues that it ignores the multifarious reasons behind Britain’s struggle with obesity such as poverty, poor health education in schools and a complex societal relationship with food.
Instead, the government’s plan is one which cultivates victim-blaming and empowers unhealthy attitudes towards weight loss and nutrition. Boris Johnson has used the campaign as an opportunity to discuss his own struggles with weight and how the approach has helped him feel more healthy. While this may be positive for him, weight and food for many people are more nuanced than choosing a salad over a carbonara at Pizza Express.
One of the most troubling proposals is the labelling of calories on menus, which will be introduced in any restaurant, café or food chain that has more than 250 employees. This perpetuates the myth that a healthy body is reliant upon calorie restriction and will encourage the continued equation of low calories and physical well-being. The reality is that health is about more than just calories, and the government’s suggestion otherwise is troubling, to say the least. Nutrition and balance are two aspects of food that should triumph over numbers, yet any mention of them is completely absent from the government’s health manifesto.
The dichotomy of low calorie food as ‘good’ and high calorie food as ‘bad’ is an outdated message, and one which ignores the importance of the actual content of food. Calories alone do not fully illustrate the nutrition of a meal; instead, a more holistic approach should be encouraged, that highlights the existence of proteins, fats, salt and all the other things that make up a meal. It is easy to see how this focus on labelling calorie contents will cultivate further obsession with numbers and restriction, rather than promoting a more nuanced and healthy view of food that values nutrition and enjoyment.
Furthermore, for many people, eating out is a special occasion and an opportunity to indulge ourselves a little more than usual.
We dine out to celebrate, to gather with friends and family, to explore new cuisines, to fall in love. In a world that has become so dark, these measures feel like yet another cloud hanging over our enjoyment of life. For anyone who has struggled with their body, staring down at triple or quadruple digits while trying to order a meal is only going to cause more harm than good, regardless of their BMI. Eating disorders can make even the lowest calorie meals a battle, and the last thing anyone who suffers with disordered eating needs is a state-approved guilt trip when going out for a celebration. Restaurants can be an especially difficult hurdle to overcome when embarking on recovery, and this government decision would make dining out even more of a battle zone for many.
Unfortunately, the measures do little to dispel the idea that mental health issues and eating disorders rank low in the government’s priorities. Analysis by the charity YoungMinds found that less than 1% of NHS spending is spent on children and young people’s mental health, which is especially troubling when it is considered that approximately 13% of people aged five to nineteen have a mental disorder. Eating disorders have the highest mortality rate of any mental health condition and, with over 1.25 million people suffering from eating disorders in the UK, the government should be taking steps to support those in need, rather than advocating for measures which support victim blaming and crash diets.
As restaurants reopen and post-pandemic anxiety is prevalent amongst many, we need a government that truly supports all aspects of our health, not one that prioritises low BMIs and high GDP over the true mental and physical well-being of its people.
Photo courtesy of Taylor Kiser