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The Government’s obesity strategy is putting those with eating disorders at risk

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4 min read

This Eating Disorder Awareness Week, we must recognise that there is not a catch-all strategy to addressing obesity in the UK.

The government’s own policies are putting those with eating disorders at risk - I am calling for an immediate review of their ‘tackling obesity’ strategy.

The strategy was announced in July 2020, after it had become clear that people who are overweight or obese are more likely to be hospitalized and sadly, die as a result of Covid-19.

 It is crucial that the government gets this important work right, but they must not implement these policies at the expense of people with eating disorders.

A key concern with the tackling obesity strategy is its emphasis on individual choices, rather than acknowledging that obesity is complex and can be caused by multiple factors, including inequality, the environments people live in, and mental health.

The government must try to avoid using stigmatising and blaming language regarding obesity, and instead should aim to help people understand the nuance and interaction between mental health and obesity.

One of the policies announced was calorie labelling on menus in restaurants, cafes, and takeaways with more than 250 employees and encourages smaller businesses to voluntarily do the same.

Eating disorders and obesity are both serious problems, both need urgent solutions, but they cannot be at the expense of one another.

Calorie labelling may be useful for some, but calorie counting can be a dangerous part of eating disorders and can be triggering for many people.

Eating out is a treat for most people, but it is an extremely difficult part of living with or recovering from an eating disorder, which will be made even more distressing because of this policy.

At the time of the announcement, many with lived experiences of eating disorders spoke out. Even those who are in recovery, are frightened by the prospect of being forced to read how many calories are in each dish on a menu.

People with eating disorders are not an identical group and this will affect different people in very different ways.

Research has found that when a menu includes a calorie count, people with anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa are more likely to order significantly fewer calories than if no calorie count was stated, but people with binge eating disorder are likely to order more calories in the same situation.

This week is Eating Disorder Awareness Week and the theme for 2021 is binge eating - one of the most common, but least understood. One in fifty people experience binge eating disorder and one in three of those with binge eating disorder consider taking their own life.

Understanding of binge eating disorder is more important than ever. Beat (the UK’s eating disorder charity) said during the week that the Government announced its obesity strategy, mentions of obesity on their Helpline increased by 165%.

Not only is calorie labelling potentially very harmful, but it is unlikely to be an effective way to reduce obesity in the long term. Other methods, such as encouraging restaurants and takeaways to reduce the amount of calories in their dishes, are more likely to make a difference.

I am calling for the government to review its strategy and consult with people who have lived experiences of eating disorders and who are experts in this field.

The mental health crisis in this country has been ongoing for years, but the pandemic and lockdowns have exacerbated it. Between February 2020 and January 2021, calls to Beat have increased by 173%. 9 out of 10 people with eating disorders found that the pandemic had a profound negative effect on their eating disorder.

The Royal College of Psychiatrists’ research suggests that a ‘tsunami’ has now hit mental health services, particularly among children and young people’s services, as a result of the pandemic and lockdown.

Long term, early and easily accessible mental health is vital, this includes mental health teams in schools to help children and young people.

Eating disorders and obesity are both serious problems, both need urgent solutions, but they cannot be at the expense of one another.

 The government must create a balanced approach which incorporates mental health in every aspect of it, promoting healthiness and wellbeing for all.

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