Writing by Annabel Wilde. Illustration by Phoebe McGowan.
After the devastatingly high number of deaths from COVID-19 in the UK, new figures have been published which find that 8% of coronavirus hospitalisations were of people termed medically obese. The government has therefore decided to strike while the iron is hot, and launch an initiative to promote weight loss before the possibility of a second wave of the virus this winter.
The bad habit of the British government of blaming individuals for structural problems has struck again with the new obesity initiative, which effectively blames overweight people for putting extra strain on the NHS. Not decreasing NHS funding or the removal of student nurse subsidies - rising obesity in the UK is what we as a nation should be fighting against to save our health service. The dangerous assumption here is that the reason people are overweight is entirely through their own mismanaged life choices. Forget the playing fields, youth clubs, sports centres and swimming pools closed down under this government. Forget the 7.7% food price increase and 7.1% income drop for the poorest in Britain between 2002 and 2016, meaning that those on low incomes must buy whatever food is most affordable, which is rarely a healthy option. No, individual choice is to blame for nationwide weight gain.
To outline the government stance in its ‘War on Obesity’: there is an offer of £50 in order to get a bike fixed, to promote cycling as exercise rather than driving - great, if you already own a bike - and doctors and GPs are now able to recommend weight loss companies SlimmingWorld and WeightWatchers. The Department of Health and Social Care have outlined four ingenious methods to empower the nation. Firstly, TV and online adverts for food high in fat, sugar and salt will be strictly post-watershed, because it is impossible to be hungry after 9pm. Deals such as Buy-One-Get-One-Free will be ended on unhealthy foods in shops, and calories will be displayed on menus to help people make ‘healthier choices’ when eating out. This is a part of a ‘new campaign to help people lose weight, get active and eat better after COVID-19 “wake-up call”’. The issues with the logistics of these plans are endless, as well as dangerous for vulnerable groups - the nation’s poorest, and those with disordered relationships with food.
The fact of the matter is that by positioning weight loss as personal choice (all you need to do is count calories, exercise more, and avoid deals), the government has failed to recognise common factors contributing to weight gain: emotional distress, poverty and inequality. There is a clear correlation between mental health, poverty and being overweight, yet the attitude towards overweight people is still based on a perceived ‘lack of control’ and greed. With ever decreasing mental health funding, it is imperative that this initiative turns its attention to proven links between trauma and weight gain, and accepts that there are factors which mean that bodyweight is not a personal choice. The danger of this rhetoric is already visible. The word ‘obese’ has for many become an offensive slur rather than medical terminology, one which encourages fatphobia and reinforces the idea that weight is equal to the health of an individual. We have to think beyond individual choice and see the problem as one with structural, systemic roots.
The sheer irony of this new government initiative launching in the same week as the Eat Out to Help Out scheme is impossible to ignore. The government report states that ‘In supermarkets, special offers and promotions tempt us to buy foods that are not on the shopping list but are hard to resist.’ Well, take 50% off of McDonalds’ prices, making a cheeseburger 50p, 20 nuggets £3 and a Happy Meal just £1.30, and see how much harder it is to resist a quick, easy, cheap meal then.
The mixed messages from the government vilify those living in poverty. In 2019, 1.6 million people in the UK used a food bank - where no fresh fruit or veg are accepted as donations. The government scrapped a scheme which provided fresh fruit and vegetables to schools earlier this year, with no plans to reintroduce it. 4 million children in the UK live in households that struggle to afford fresh and healthy foods; if the government is serious about its obesity initiative, it doesn’t take much research to see that subsidising fresh fruits and vegetables and healthy foods is a more intelligent strategy. The issue with the statement that special offers in supermarkets are simply ‘hard to resist’ is that for some, they are the only viable purchasing option, and it is irresponsible to dangle the carrot of discounted fast food whilst campaigning for people to stop eating unhealthily.
One of the most outrageous strategies of the government is to enforce calorie information on menus at restaurants, with emphasis on lowering calorie intake, under the guise of protecting our health. With 1.25 million people in the UK suffering from eating disorders, and an estimated millions more living with disordered relationships with food, calorie information being a way for us to make a ‘healthy choice’ is simply untrue when we consider mental wellbeing.
In the obesity paper published by the government, the single mention of mental health is that ‘obesity can impact on mental health,’ with no reference to how mental health can impact on bodyweight. The pandemic has led already to a rise in reports of mental illness; adding the stress of calorie counting to already vulnerable populations is incredibly hazardous. Toxic diet culture and body image in the UK is already such a big issue, forcing calorie counting onto every person who eats out at a restaurant can trigger obsessive behaviours and encourage restrictive eating. This is particularly harmful for people battling anorexia, which has the highest mortality rate of any eating disorder. This means that in order to avoid triggering information, many in recovery may avoid eating out altogether and socially isolate, turning restaurants into hostile places of fear and shame.
Privilege has left the policy makers in government blind to structural inequalities which mean a blanket scheme is not realistic for the entire country. Promoting a healthy lifestyle is undeniably important for the government, however all factors contributing to weight changes must be considered when doing so. It is not enough to tell people to say ‘no’ to unhealthy options when they are placed in front of us, particularly when socioeconomic circumstances have left us with no other choice. It is dangerous to ignore the external environment contributing to our relationship with food and expect unwavering rationality with regards to calorie information.
For anybody particularly affected by the information within this article, I recommend researching the numerous local Edinburgh foodbanks to donate to, as well as the charities Trussell Trust and Fareshare, who aim to tackle hunger and food waste. For those who struggle personally with their relationship with food, alongside professional help, the following links can provide support: Beat | The UK's Eating Disorder Charity, Welcome to the Scottish Eating Disorders Interest Group | SEDIG, Find Eating disorder support services