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Government Told To Scrap BMI Scale To Help Tackle Significant Rise In Eating Disorders

Government Told To Scrap BMI Scale To Help Tackle Significant Rise In Eating Disorders

Boris Johnson launched the NHS Better Health and the new Obesity Strategy in July last year (Alamy)

5 min read

MPs have called on the government to overhaul its obesity strategy, including scrapping the use of the Body Mass Index (BMI) scale to determine a healthy weight, in a bid to tackle the “devastating” impact of lockdown on body image in the UK.

A new report into body image by the government's women and equalities committee also urges a ban on the use of altered images in ads, which some believe have a detrimental effect on those struggling with body issues.

The report said an independent review was needed into the government’s Obesity Strategy, which it described as “at best ineffective and at worst perpetuating unhealthy behaviours”.

More funding was also needed to tackle the “alarming” rise in the prevalence of eating disorders in the past year, it argued, as the report found just 96p is spent on research into eating disorders per person experiencing them compared to £9 per person for mental health issues overall.

Recent NHS Digital data shows that hospital admissions for eating disorders rose by almost a third (32%) in recent years, with 21,794 in 2019 to 2020.

Analysis by the Royal College of Psychiatrist found that the average number of referrals for eating disorders increased by 20% from March 2020 to November 2020, while waiting times for treatment had more than doubled from 33 days to 67 days.

“We are particularly alarmed by the rise in eating disorders and concerned that the Obesity Strategy and data collection of obesity levels in kids make things worse by failing to promote healthy behaviours,” said Caroline Nokes MP, chair of the women and equalities select committee.

“The Government must ensure its policies are not contributing to body image pressures.”

Lib Dem MP Wera Hobhouse, who chairs the All-party Parliamentary Group on eating disorders, echoed calls for a review into the government's plan to tackle obesity. 

“Obesity is a very serious problem and I completely support the public health need to reduce obesity in many communities," she told PoliticsHome.

“However, the way in which the Obesity Strategy was messaged completely ignored the reality for those with eating disorders who found the obsessive focus on calorie counting and exercise detrimental to their mental health.”

“This government must do better at tackling eating disorders — supporting the thousands who have found themselves suffering alone, and in silence, for the duration of the Pandemic."

Instead of focusing on BMI in health strategies, the report recommends that a ‘Health at Every Size’ approach should be adopted, which encourages people to adopt healthy lifestyle choices instead of focusing solely on weight.

There have also been claims from the Royal College of Psychiatrists and mental health campaigner Hope Virgo that some people had been denied eating disorder support because their BMI was not low enough, The Guardian reports.

Commenting on today’s report, Dr Agnes Ayton, chair of the eating disorders faculty at the Royal College of Psychiatrists said: “People with eating disorders should not be denied help based on their BMI. This could put them in a life threatening position to reduce more weight in order to meet the threshold to access services.  

She added: “We urgently need resources and more funding for research if we’re to deal with the hidden epidemic of eating disorders this pandemic has brought on.”

Calls to scrap the BMI scale have also been welcomed by eating disorder charity Beat, who said it had seen a 302% increase in demand for their helpline and support services over the past year amid the pandemic.

“BMI should never be used as the sole factor in diagnosing eating disorders, or for determining who is “unwell enough” to access treatment,” said Tom Quinn, Beat’s director of external affairs. 

“This can lead to potentially dangerous delays, and can drive people deeper into eating disorders in order to be taken seriously.”

He continued: “The Government’s obesity strategy must be immediately reviewed, as it includes measures known to be dangerous to those unwell or vulnerable, such as listing calories on menus. 

“We believe that none of the measures that pose risks should be implemented until this review has taken place.”

Elsewhere in the report, MPs also called on the government to restrict or ban the use of altered images in advertising, arguing that this had a “detrimental” impact on mental health and contributed to poor body image. 

“Advertising and social media can cause negative body image if users are bombarded by ads which lack diverse representation,” Nokes claimed. 

“It’s paramount that people are protected from viewing consistently pressurising content online and that companies advertise their products responsibly.”

Last year, MP Dr Luke Evans proposed that advertisers and digital platforms should be required to display logos alerting people that images have been altered as part of his ‘Digitally Altered Body Images Bill’. 

Speaking in the Commons, Dr Evans argued that image filters and alterations were "creating unrealistic and unachievable aspirations” for young people and contributing to a rise in eating disorders.

"I don't want to stop people from removing red eyes on wedding photos or filters to enhance the lighting, but when the body proportions have been fundamentally changed, the viewer should know,” he said. 

The Private Members Bill is due for its second reading, but will will only pass into law if it obtains government support.
 

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