So today, in the news, there are a lot of stories with headlines that look a little like this.
I am so furious. I’ve spoken about diet culture across my blog and social media in a few different ways (here are a couple of the more relevant ones about Weight Watchers and the diet culture around the festive period). I won’t go into huge amounts of detail here about it as I could speak for hours and I can feel my blood pressure rising as I type. However, one thing that we know about dieting, particularly the kind of unsustainable, short term, faddy yo-yo dieting that is thrown at us left right and centre, is that it actually leads to weight gain. Study after study has shown that the majority of people who ‘diet’ end up at a higher weight than they started. Over and over again, it has been highlighted that ‘diets’ don’t work. Nothing good has ever come from shaming people about their weight.
So why, why, why, are we now even entertaining the idea of including how many minutes of exercise you would need to do to burn off the food you’ve eaten on the packaging? My brain feels like it is going to explode just writing that sentence. There are so many things wrong with it that I don’t know where to start so I’ll summarise with a few key points.
- Obesity is an incredibly complex issue that is inextricably linked to poverty, various socioeconomic factors, education and diet culture. It is not as simple as people not realising that more calories in and less calories out equals weight gain. The fact that we continue now, in this day and age, to assume people don’t understand that a calorie deficit = weight loss and a calorie overshoot = weight gain is insulting. What there isn’t enough education about is actual adequate nutrition. Fuelling our bodies is far more complex than eating your recommended number of calories and moving the recommended number of minutes. There is not anywhere near enough education about the impacts of starvation and how common it is for this to start binge cycles or slow metabolism or plummet people’s self esteem when they find they aren’t able to stick to what are incredibly unrealistic and unhealthy dietary rules and expectations. Shaming people does not work.
- Everyone’s body is different. 20 minutes of cycling for a 50kg 17 year old girl will not burn the same amount of calories as a 105kg 55 year old man. It’s impossible for a cardboard food packet to tell you accurately that you need to swim for 25 minutes to burn off its contents.
- It perpetuates the idea that exercise should be for weight loss. Exercise is so beneficial and has so many important side effects. It’s amazing for mental health and releases endorphins. It can improve people’s social lives and give a sense of purpose and mastery. It can increase self esteem and give people access to different opportunities. It improves cardiovascular health and benefits mobility. It can help you to live longer. Yet we don’t talk about these things often in the media when discussing exercise. We rarely see stories of how exercise makes people feel happier with a better sense of wellbeing. What we are shown, time and time again, is how exercise has helped people to lose weight as if that is it’s sole and most important purpose.
- Your body needs calories. You literally need them to survive. For some reason we have agreed as a society that you need to exercise to burn off all the calories you eat. Newsflash, your body is literally burning calories all the time. It’s how it makes you digest food and pump blood round your body and breathe and do all the other amazing things that it does while you are just pottering about. You burn calories while you are asleep. It’s called being alive. This is why, when you have anorexia, you slowly shut down. It doesn’t have the energy to keep things running as they should be. Gastric mobility slows down. Your blood pressure and pulse drop. Your temperature gets a little lower. In the very bluntest possible terms: no calories = death. We shouldn’t actually be living our lives in a calorie deficit, we should be fuelling our bodies enough for them to comfortably maintain homeostasis, and the amount of nutrition and energy expenditure for everyone’s individual bodies to do that is completely variable. It depends on our genes, our metabolisms, our set points, our activity levels. It varies based on our age, gender, race. There is no fixed calculation or science that a food packet can scream at you that could possibly be entirely correct for you, as the wonderful, individual, special human that you are.
- You deserve food. You need food. You don’t have to earn the right to eat. Your existence gives you the right to eat. Our bodies are very, very clever. If you are hungry, it’s because you need energy! If you are constantly preoccupied with food, something also referred to as ‘mental hunger’, it’s because you are hungry! People with anorexia are obsessed with food, but their hunger cues might be all over the place. For example, I very, very rarely feel what could be described as physiological hunger. Because for my body to send me those cues, it has to use vital energy that it just doesn’t have. But one way it can still drive you towards eating and accessing the nutrients it needs, is to make you think about food all of the time. If you can’t stop thinking about food, eat something! And not only do you deserve to eat, you deserve to enjoy food. It’s not ‘naughty’ to eat a chocolate bar. You are not ‘bad’ for picking up those biscuits. You should not feel ‘guilty’ for having a slice of that birthday cake someone brought into work. Not one single part of who you are or your worth as a human is attached to the food you put in your mouth.
Yes, more people in the UK right now are obese than underweight. However, the prevalence of eating disorders (including bulimia and binge eating disorder, two illnesses with strong links to being overweight) is rising astronomically, at a rate far exceeding that of those becoming obese. Additionally, the health risks associated with being underweight long term are actually higher than for those who are overweight. Anorexia has the highest mortality rate of all mental illnesses as a result of not only the well known physical health complications, but the incredibly high risk of suicide attached. I would not wish an eating disorder on my worst enemy, yet everywhere we turn we are suffocated by the idea that we don’t deserve to eat, that our worth is dependent on our weight and that somehow not fitting into the exact ideal that is expected from society means that somehow we are less moral, less pure. Less ‘good’.
I don’t need my food packaging to tell me how long it will take me to burn the calories off, because my brain is a 24/7 calorie calculator. I can do nothing but add and subtract. I can’t, even when I am asleep, free myself from those thoughts. How then, in this climate, when I can’t even look at a packet of microwave rice without it shouting its numerical value at me, or a loaf of bread without its colour coded nutritional information glaring me in the face, can I recover? How, when trying to battle against that and blinker myself from the low fat, sugar free, reduced salt options that my brain tells me are the only things I deserve, can I challenge the thoughts that I am not allowed to eat? How can I train myself again into believing that I am worthy of food, when the items I pick up at the supermarket are immediately telling me how to erase their points from my body as soon as I put them in?
Children as young as six years old are being diagnosed with anorexia. I, at work, have seen so many children with eating disorders under the age of 12 come through our service that it doesn’t shock me anymore. I barely bat an eyelid if they’re over 14. When I first became unwell I didn’t have to contend with any of this, but every single relapse it gets harder and harder to recover because there is another layer of diet culture or social media to wade through, another new piece of evidence that tells us how and why not to be fat, another headline talking about how absolutely terrible and disgraceful and lazy and awful it is to be overweight. And on the flip side, how disciplined and attractive and impressive I am for being underweight. The media doesn’t care that my blood pressure is through the floor and that I was admitted to hospital with severe dehydration and that there is a significant chance that I have osteoporosis before I’m 30. And not only do the media not care, the health professionals and academics feeding into the research that backs these campaigns don’t care either.
We are focussing our attention on the wrong areas and in doing that there are huge, glaring holes that people are falling into and quite literally dying. There is a way to tackle the health (not obesity!) crisis in this country, and across the world.
Shaming people is not how to do it.