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Exclusive: Boris Johnson warned that calorie-counting obesity ‘scare tactics’ will harm recovery for eating disorder sufferers

The Government is considering making it mandatory for restaurants and takeaways to display calorie counts. (PA)

7 min read

Boris Johnson’s “distressing” anti-obesity plan to make restaurants and takeaways display calories could set back recovery for people battling eating disorders, the Government has been warned.

Leading campaigners told PoliticsHome that proposals expected to be unveiled next week risked making life harder for the estimated 1.25 million Brits with eating disorders.

And they warned the Government against “fat-shaming” and “embarrassing” rhetoric aimed at guilt-tripping people into losing weight.

A wide-ranging plan to combat obesity is expected to be unveiled next week, with the Government set to seek views on compulsory calorie counts for restaurant and takeaway menus, as well as a national campaign aimed at encouraging people to seek daily exercise. 

Mr Johnson — a longstanding critic of ‘nanny state’ measures to tackle obesity — admitted last month that he had ditched his “libertarian” position after his own brush with coronavirus.

Obesity is a major risk factor for the disease, and the PM is reported to have shed two stone himself since going into hospital. 

As part of the strategy, the Government is said to be mulling a crackdown on junk food advertising and supermarket food promotions.

"Although I’m eleven years into my recovery, actually I know that if I went into a restaurant where the calories were on the menu I would look at them and I would find it quite distressing" - Hope Virgo, eating disorder campaigner

But campaigners are warning that some of the proposed measures run directly counter to the medical advice given to people struggling with a range of eating disorders like anorexia, bulimia and binge eating disorder.

Andrew Radford, chief executive of eating disorders charity Beat told PoliticsHome that previous government campaigns had caused “serious distress to people with eating disorders”.

“They give messages that amplify the eating disorder that they have to deal with all of the time, and contradict the therapies and the treatment that they have been given, encouraging people not be frightened of any particular food,” he said.

Mr Radford warned: “Each time there is a campaign launched by Public Health England or when you get a TV programme [focused on losing weight] our beneficiary groups, people affected by eating disorders find it incredibly distressing. 

“And we end up with people saying: ‘this is triggering me back into eating disorders, this is undermining my recovery, or this is just making me really, really angry on a number of levels’.”

People in recovery from an eating disorder are often taught to disregard calorie counts as they begin to return to a more normal eating pattern — with Mr Radford saying of previous government campaigns: “They’re good at fat-shaming and they’re good at triggering peoples’ calorie-counting behaviours.

”But there’s no evidence that I’ve seen that demonstrates that they have any impact at all in tackling obesity.”


Hope Virgo, who is herself in recovery from an eating disorder and has led a campaign to stop GPs relying on the BMI measure of someone’s weight to diagnose such conditions, said any move to add compulsory calorie counts to menus would would make people “nervous”.

“It would mean that you would walk into that restaurant and you would pick your meal based on calories,” she told PoliticsHome.

“It would take out all the enjoyment of food. Although I’m eleven years into my recovery, actually I know that if I went into a restaurant where the calories were on the menu I would look at them and I would find it quite distressing. 

“And also you’d have people who, like my friends for example who have never struggled with food — they would start to become pre-occupied with the calorie-counting and talk about it. People would start to kind of compete over that lower size.”

Warning against “scare tactics” and a “one-size-fits-all” model in the Government’s anti-obesity push, Ms Virgo said: “My fear is that, actually by doing it the way that they do it, it makes people with eating disorders feel really awful about themselves and it makes them start to question where they’re at in their recovery.”

She added: “It also creates a society where disordered eating’s just so normal and calorie-counting becomes normal and obsessive exercise becomes normal.”

Ms Virgo also warned against “appalling” and “embarassing” rhetoric from the Government after Mr Johnson was quoted as saying: “Don’t be a fatty in your fifties.”

"Actually at the moment there are a lot of women, and men, in their forties and fifties who struggle with food," she said of the comments.

“We don’t think about it as an eating disorder at that age. And it’s really hard for them to get that support. 

“And with statements like that it just puts more pressure on those individuals and just adds that layer of complication to someone who may be trying to recover.”


That view was echoed by Liberal Democrat MP Wera Hobhouse, who heads up the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Eating Disorders and has previously pushed for improvements to treatment services for sufferers in the UK.

Ms Hobhouse warned that calorie-counts were “exactly the sort of thing that people who suffer from an eating disorder” would “obsessively” consider.

“The messaging has to be very, very careful,” she warned the Prime Minister.

And she added: “Unless you understand that there are deeper reasons for issues of obesity that are also tied into socio-economic problems, I don’t think you can just solve it by snapping your finger and putting calorie counts on packages of food. 

“It has to go much, much deeper. There is a much deeper problem than just saying ‘alright, ban some buy one get one free deals’.”


Beat has said the Government must listen to experts on eating disorders as the new anti-obesity plan is consulted on in the coming months, and has urged its supporters to write to the Prime Minister to ensure their voices are heard.

Mr Radford said: “Obesity is a major public health problem which needs addressing, and being significantly overweight has health problems. 

“But let’s not forget that being significantly underweight also has health problems. 

“And what we ask is that, when campaigns are being considered, that eating disorder specialists should be consulted as well as weight management specialists so that the potential impact on people with eating disorders can be considered and hopefully employed to mitigate it.”

He told ministers: “Don’t ignore the impact that your campaigns will have on people with eating disorders.”

Ms Hobhouse meanwhile said she would invite the Government to talk to her all-party group when it reconvenes in September, with the anti-obesity push now top of its agenda.

“Don’t ignore the impact that your campaigns will have on people with eating disorders" - Andrew Radford, Beat chief executive

“If the Government wants to engage with the APPG that would be a way forward,” she said.

And Ms Virgo warned: “I think particularly at the moment as we’re coming out of lockdown, we’re seeing so much messaging everywhere around dieting and exercise and people stressed about putting on weight.

“Actually, by launching a campaign like this now, with the messaging that they’re using, it’s going to have such a massively negative impact on so many people.”

The Department for Health and Social Care has yet to respond to a request for comment.


Speaking about the proposals on Friday, Mr Johnson said: "I'm not normally a believer in nannying or bossing type of politics but the reality is that obesity is one of the real comorbidity factors. 

"Losing weight is frankly one of the ways that you can reduce your own risks from from COVID and, actually, it's one of the ways you can generally improve your health and protect the NHS."


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