Eating disorder experts, nutrition experts and activists alike criticise the government’s approach to obesity

Recently the government announced a new obesity strategy that claims to help get the nation ‘fit and healthy, protect themselves against COVID-19 and protect the NHS’. After releasing the strategy, experts in the field of eating disorders, nutrition and body positivity spoke out against it, fearing it’s one-dimensional approach could do more harm than good.

To start with, what is the government doing within this strategy? In a nutshell, the following measures will be put into place:

  • Banning TV and online adverts for foods high in fat, sugar and salt before 9pm.
  • Ending deals like ‘buy one get one free’ on unhealthy foods high in salt, sugar and fat.
  • Displaying calories on menus to help people make healthier choices when eating out, with alcoholic drinks soon to list calories too.
  • Launching a new campaign aimed at helping people lose weight, get active and eat better after COVID-19 ‘wake-up call’.

The government is using a link between obesity and higher risk of serious illness or death from COVID-19 as a spark to light the fire behind their strategy. What’s not been considered however is who could get burnt in the process.

What eating disorder experts are saying

UK eating disorder charity Beat have publicly slammed the proposals made by the government. Earlier this month the charity published a report on the risks to people with eating disorders caused by the government’s anti-obesity strategies. In the report they asked No. 10 and Public Health England to take its recommendations into account when creating the current campaign. They asked for evidence-based tactics to be used, to avoid promoting crash dieting and to consult with eating disorder experts.

These requests were all ignored. Beat’s Chief Executive Andrew Radford said it was extremely disappointing to see the government has chosen to put those affected by eating disorders at risk.

“We recognise the importance of addressing obesity, but the risks of stigmatising and poorly-considered campaigns on those affected by eating disorders must be taken into account.

“In particular, we are concerned that the campaign will encourage people with eating disorders to use the promoted weight loss app, which fails to prevent under 18s or people with low-weight from using it, despite it not being suitable for them. Without suitable safeguards, what could be useful in helping people with obesity risks harming people with eating disorders.

“It is also worrying to see a renewed emphasis on measures such as calorie labelling, as evidence clearly shows that these risk exacerbating eating disorders of all kinds.

“Furthermore, we are disappointed that the government has chosen to use language that blames people living with obesity. Instead we would like more attention to the complex causes of obesity, which for some people can include eating disorders.”

Adding her voice to the cause, eating disorder campaigner Hope Virgo agrees that the focus on weight and calorie counting over education and empowerment is dangerous.

“With an estimated 1.25 million Brits suffering from eating disorders, what is proposed as a ‘common-sense approach’ - focussing on weight and calorie counting - is incredibly destructive; indeed, this approach stands in stark contradiction to the approach favoured by clinicians who seek to avoid a scrupulous and psychologically damaging focus on weight, calorie counting, and BMI.

“Effective empowerment means equipping people with information to make better informed choices. While it is true that providing calorie information may be useful for some, it is important to realise that for those suffering from eating disorders, this sets entirely the wrong precedent.”

Highlighting that this strategy is taking a one-size-fits-all approach to a complicated and multi-dimensional subject, Hope is calling on the government to move away from calorie counting and instead focus on the following:

  • Investment in education about how to achieve a more healthy lifestyle.
  • Taking a holistic view, considering the whole person.
  • Moving away from health metrics based on weight and BMI.

Hope has also launched a petition to stop calories being displayed on menus in an attempt to show the government how dangerous this could be.

What nutrition and medical experts are saying

Many nutrition professionals and doctors have commented on the government’s plans, again noting it’s one-dimensional and takes a stigmatising view of weight.

Dr Joshua Wolrich posted on Instagram saying the plan is a mixed bag. An issue highlighted in his post was the way weight and obesity is being portrayed as a personal responsibility when many factors, including environmental factors, are at play.

“Can I just make it clear on the outset though, telling people that they can protect the NHS as the winter approaches by losing weight is disgusting. Using phrases in policy like ‘we owe it to the NHS to move towards a healthier weight’ can get in the stigmatising bin.

“The weight we live at is largely a result of our environment - there are over 100 different factors that influence weight with many of them related to socioeconomics; ob*sity is most common among those living in the most deprived areas of the UK.

“Making that a personal responsibility is outright disgraceful and should be condemned to the fullest.”

View this post on Instagram

The UK government’s new ‘Better Health’ plan is a real mixed bag. There the good, the bad the downright stigmatising. ⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀ Can I just make it clear on the outset though, telling people that they can protect the NHS as the winter approaches by losing weight is disgusting. Using phrases in policy like “we owe it to the NHS to move towards a healthier weight” can get in the stigmatising bin. The weight we live at is largely a result of our environment - there are over 100 different factors that influence weight with many of them related to socioeconomics; ob*sity is most common among those living in the most deprived areas of the UK. ⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀ Making that a personal responsibility is outright disgraceful and should be condemned to the fullest. ⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀ We’ll talk more about this as the week progresses.

A post shared by Dr Joshua Wolrich MBBS MRCS (@drjoshuawolrich) on

Registered dietitian Helen West made her views clear on Twitter, sharing that she was despairing at the obesity plan which “disregards all evidence on weight and weight loss. Puts in place measures which will actively harm people with eating disorders and pushes a narrative of individual responsibility that will fuel stigma. Awful. Awful. Awful.”

Backing up her thoughts with science, the replies are full of evidence that stigmatising and shaming people does not work in promoting health behaviours.

Agreeing with this sentiment, nutrition and lifestyle coach Rose White has emailed secretary of state for health and social care Matt Hancock to explain that weight stigma results in poor health outcomes. Instead, Rose says we need “education, behaviour change coaching, advocates for adopting health promoting behaviours and policy that addresses socio-economic health inequalities.”

Dietitian and Nutritionist Resource member Sophie Medlin took to Instagram to promote a non-restrictive approach to health, sharing some tips for those looking to improve health which include working on sleep habits, managing stress and moving your body in a way that feels good.  

What body positivity activists and influencers are saying

Using their platforms to speak up about the dangers of the government’s plans, influencers and those who promote body positivity are sharing more personal experiences. Callie Thorpe, founder and podcast host of The Confidence Corner shared her story of dieting and weight shame on Instagram.

Going into more detail about her reaction during the COVID-19 pandemic and her thoughts on the government’s plan, the post has garnered almost 300 comments, largely from others sharing their stories of how harmful weight stigma and shame has been for them.

View this post on Instagram

I’ve been feeling guilt and shame about my weight my whole life. I’ve been on diets my whole life with little to no success. Instead I’ve gained more weight each time. I’ve used food as comfort and a crutch for anxiety and mental health issues. And I’ve blamed myself for all of it. When the headlines came out about potential relationship between Corona Virus and obesity I felt so fearful for a while I wouldn’t go out not even to the supermarket and would send Dan instead. I decided to buy myself a bike so I could move my body and be as healthy as possible out of fear that my weight might put me at risk. Yesterday the government launched new measures to ‘tackle obesity’ I watched the news as they showed headless bodies (zoomed in on there stomach) ones who look like mine and talk about how we’ve all got ourself in this terrible way. There’s Little to no acknowledgement of the socioeconomic issues read relate to obesity such as poverty, education, food deserts or the complexity of mental health and stigma. The government are going to offer free classes to diet clubs (industries worth billions which have only a 5% success rate) they are going to likely tax the unhealthy food rather than reduce the cost of healthy nutritionally dense food. All the mean while the government will likely continue to take donations from massive food industries who have played huge roles in defining what is and isn’t healthy (the once demonisation of fat in foods in favour of low calorie high sugar options is a great example of this look it up) Whilst I do agree with the suggestion of banning advertising ( I personally believe a key issue in peoples poor relationship with food) i think we also need to consider that it’s positive behavioural changes that will improve health. I think the loaning of bikes will also be beneficial and welcome that. But why not invest in access to mental health services also? People classed as obese will be feeling more scared and shame than ever. (Cont in comments)

A post shared by Callie (@calliethorpe) on

Life coach, TEDX speaker and author of Am I Ugly? Michelle Elman used Instagram to explain why she wouldn’t be giving her opinion to the media on the government’s obesity plans.

“It’s dehumanising. I refuse to let the government blame their failings on individuals. I also refuse to let 7% of covid deaths and their families believe their death was their own doing.

“If I were to go on the radio to talk about it, I would have to sit and read about obesity all day and as I told my agent, it’s bad for my health. I refuse to justify my existence. I am already told on a daily basis that I deserve my 15 surgeries, even though I was not fat when I had any of them. I already have daily comments from people on tiktok predicting my death. So nope.

“Go interview the 100s of dietitians that were not consulted on this obesity plan.”

While some elements of the government’s plans have been praised, including the fix your bike voucher scheme, experts and those affected by the overall approach to obesity have spoken loud and clear. They’ve started petitions, emailed politicians, called on them to do the right thing and review their strategy. Will the government listen? Only time will tell.

Until then, if you’re feeling triggered by the new measures you may find it helpful to speak to a professional. If your mental health is suffering, speaking to a counsellor may offer the support you need. If you’re keen to improve your health in a non-restrictive way, you might want to speak to a nutrition professional who takes this approach or look into hypnotherapy and how it can help you change your relationship with food.

Know that you’re not alone and that nothing is black or white when it comes to our health and weight. We are whole, complex and unique beings, living in the shades of grey.