The conversation surrounding lifestyle change during lockdown has been a loud one and the strain placed on the NHS during the peak of the first wave of the pandemic has jumpstarted an anti-obesity strategy: calling for calorie counts on menus, ending ‘buy one get one free’ deals on ‘unhealthy’ food, and campaigning to help people lose weight. These appear overtly positive, however have the complexities of the obesity debate rendered this response harmful?
The Department of Health and Social Care have highlighted the relationship between obesity and coronavirus, with 8% of patients in intensive care being morbidly obese compared to 2.9% of the general population. It appears reasonable for the government to encourage weight loss when there are clear links to increased health risks, right? This would be true if the strategies possessed the necessary nuance.
The Body Mass Index (BMI), used to determine whether one is a ‘healthy’ weight has been denounced by many as inadequate, neglecting muscle mass, bone density and body composition. BMI uses aggregate data and attempts to apply it on an individual level, an ecological fallacy. Genetics have a major influence in determining an individual’s set-point weight, indicating that bodies differ significantly, and aggregate level data cannot be used reliably to enforce an ideal and ‘healthy’ weight range. When initiatives are informed by as harsh a measure as BMI, the simplification the index conveys is therefore translated into the responses.
Fat acceptance supports body diversity, reinforcing that the epitome of ‘health’ does not look the same for everyone despite what is pushed by a fatphobic society. Health at Every Size promotes listening to your body, eating well, and exercising over an emphasis on dieting and weight loss. Dieting is unsustainable, known to make it unlikely to keep weight off in the long run. The commodification of weight loss, however, highlights the desires to promote an ineffective method to lose weight and the government has launched into this trap, shaming people into losing weight instead of promoting informed and healthy lifestyles, more effective in promoting health and maintaining good mental health.
Another failing of the anti-obesity strategy involves the refusal to address class differences and readiness to blame the individual. The initiative’s announcement sparked debate over social media regarding the ease of making choices over food. Annunziata Rees-Mogg’s tweet attempting to highlight how cheap food does not necessarily have to be ‘unhealthy’ was branded insensitive, highlighting significant polarisation and a complete lack of understanding of the experience of lower classes by those potentially in positions of power and influence.
Many took to social media to recount their experiences: working multiple jobs thus being unable to spend time preparing healthier meals from scratch, not having many utensils, and the increased reliance on food banks (with the Trussel Trust reporting a record 1.9 million food bank parcels being distributed in the year 2019/20). When you can get vouchers on the back of bus tickets for a £1.99 McDonald’s meal, it is not the individual solely at fault for the types of food they consume. Instead of shaming struggling families for the food they consume when options are few and far between, a more effective initiative would be to tackle the issue from the root regarding poverty and food costs.
The shaming associated is particularly dangerous, potentially exacerbating a different crisis. 1.25 million people in the UK have an eating disorder according to BEAT, however this only accounts for those diagnosed. Elements of the anti-obesity strategy and debates sparked have caused concerns that this figure will only increase. A documentary recently aired on Channel 4 promoting losing a stone in 21 days has led to BEAT leaving their lines open for longer to support those who have been triggered, with the charity claiming that mentions of obesity on the helpline have increased by 165%, highlighting the relationship between the government’s strategy and eating disorder risk.
The National Obesity Forum proposed weighing school pupils to indicate weight gain over lockdown, this was condemned as being harmful and actively encouraging an impressionable population to develop unhealthy habits. The government have attempted to highlight that weight loss is only encouraged to “those who need it” but that is simply not enough when individuals are being shamed and many feel unsure who this applies to.
The government’s response to the obesity ‘crisis’ has proven ineffective on many levels, failing to tackle the root of the problem, neglecting the complexities involved and leading the way for other crises to emerge as a result. Individuals are being blamed for the strain on the NHS whilst the government continue to ignore the underfunding they have subjected on the healthcare system for the last ten years.
By Alys Eley
Image: by Mohamed Hassan via Pixabay