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Fri, 25 September 2020

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The obesity strategy must focus on wellbeing and not shame people into losing weight

The obesity strategy must focus on wellbeing and not shame people into losing weight

People with anorexia will view calories on menus as a mental arithmetic challenge, how few can they eat in a day, writes Caroline Nokes MP | PA Images

3 min read

The population has a whole cannot afford for the Prime Minister’s new drive to fail, but we will have to find new ways to engage with individual mental wellbeing.

There was a good reason when I asked the prime minister about his new obesity strategy last week that I focused on wellbeing and not weight.

For years I have supported the #DumptheScales campaign, worked with brilliant charities like B-eat and spoken out in the House about the tragic increase in eating disorders we see in the UK.

It is not widely known or understood that anorexia nervosa has the highest mortality rate of any mental health condition.

Far too often eating disorders are dismissed as affecting only teenage girls, yet around a quarter of sufferers are male (a statistic that is increasing), and at any one time between 1.25 and 3.4 million people in the UK are impacted by an eating disorder. Anyone can suffer, at any age, and the earlier the problem is diagnosed and treated the better the outcome.

So I am concerned that the new strategy (which I absolutely concur is sorely needed) should concentrate on wellbeing and not just the numbers on a scale or that much criticised measure of health BMI (body mass index).  

It is well known that as an indicator of well being in an individual BMI is unreliable at best. Professional rugby players often have a BMI that puts them in the obese category.

BMI works as an average across populations, but it can also work as a goal for those with eating disorders to aim towards. How low can you get yours? How low does it have to be before you will get treatment?

It is a harsh truth that the people who are going to be impacted by these numbers are those who are already obsessing over them.

Some anorexics love a target, a competition with themselves and in some cases other sufferers. They will view calories on menus as some sort of mental arithmetic challenge, how few can they eat in a day? And if I have the soup today will I be able to survive on an apple tomorrow, for the whole of tomorrow? 

It may be a controversial view but some of the big chains – think McDonalds and Costa Coffee – have shown the calorific content of those "naughty" foods for years. It hasn’t made us any slimmer as a population, because to be frank by the time you are in through the door the battle has been lost anyway.

It is a harsh truth that the people who are going to be impacted by these numbers are those who are already obsessing over them.

Weight is a hugely personal battle, as much grounded in the emotional as the physical. It is a necessary battle – Covid has taught us that the outcomes for those who are overweight are far worse, but that isn’t really news.

We have all known for years that heart disease, cancer, diabetes, liver disease, are all related to weight, the quantity and type of food we eat. But to date nothing has worked, indeed it is possible to argue that each successive initiative has seen the direction of traffic going the opposite way. 

The population has a whole cannot afford for the PM’s new drive to fail, but we will have to find new ways to engage with individual mental well being.  

We will fail if we try to shame people into looking after themselves better. We have to inspire, encourage, help and we have to remember that not every weight problem is about being too heavy.

 

Caroline Nokes is the Conservative MP for Romsey and Southampton North and chair of the Women and Equalities Committee. 

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