My relationship with food has always been a bit toxic. When I was a child I was a fussy eater. As a teen I binge ate. Happily, things today are much better, but I still have days where I binge eat, or get anxious around drinking alcohol or eating certain foods.
I was about eight when other children In primary school started commenting on my weight. By the age of eleven, my GP told me that I was heavily obese. Throughout my teenage years I felt awful about my appearance, and my relationship with food. I felt trapped in my body and sad about my weight – and that sadness led me to eat more.
When I was at primary school I exercised almost every day, playing football or some other game in the playground during school breaks. However, from almost my first P.E. lesson in secondary school my relationship with exercise soured.
Boys at my school were taught P.E. by muscly men who were frankly unkind, and I always suspected they disliked me because I was overweight and I sometimes couldn’t do what they wanted me to do. Never did one take me aside and ask how they could help me or talk to me about how to find a form of exercise I enjoyed. Nor were they particularly reactive when other kids commented (sometimes openly in front of them) on my weight during their classes or in the changing room. P.E became a bi-weekly punishment for my toxic relationship with food.
All of this is to say, being obese has multiple different causes.There are many reasons as to why people struggle with it, but it often begins with an unhealthy relationship with food.
Following Boris Johnson’s ordeal with coronavirus, the government has briefed to various newspapers that the UK’s obesity ‘problem’ has caused our high death total from coronavirus. I’m not saying that it hasn’t been a factor. However, given the government’s inability to act in February and March – when it was clear that we faced a widespread outbreak of the virus – it’s hard not to come to the conclusion that there is at least an element of blame displacement in this newfound concern around the impacts of obesity.
Number 10 has announced that they are looking at ways of lowering obesity rates in the UK. Some of the policy suggestions so far include increasing the availability of gastric bands, calorie labels on restaurant menus, ending ‘buy one get one free’ promotions of high sugar foods, and moving chocolate and sweets away from the exits of supermarkets to reduce impulse purchases. The government will be supplementing this with an ambitious-looking plan to increase walking and cycling.
I am not an expert on obesity. If these policy interventions are signed off it’s possible that they will be successful. I am simply writing this piece because I grew up with similar ‘anti-obesity’ campaigns whilst I was overweight and obese. These new policies in my view do not address our personal relationships with food, and how they influence obesity rates.
As a child I was a very fussy eater: until the age of 9 I mainly just ate chips, fruit and peanut butter in a sandwich or on toast. By the time I shrugged off this fussiness, I was already overweight and other kids were commenting on my appearance; as a child I spent my pocket money on food to give me moments of relief. This became a self-reinforcing pattern. I would regularly buy whole packets of custard creams, get home, sneak them into my room and eat the whole packet. I’m ashamed to admit that if I had spent all my pocket money I would steal from parents to fund my eating habits.
Our individual food preferences bear this deeply personal relationship out. For example, one of my food quirks is spreading bananas (when soft enough) on toast. You may think this somewhat odd, but I’m sure you too have food quirks. My relationship with food only changed because I moved to another country when I was 16, and this new start allowed me to change my relationship with food.
Food was my emotional crutch, and campaigns like Change4Life did little to address this. Change4Life was launched in 2009, run by Public Health England, it was the UK’s first national campaign aimed at tackling the causes of obesity. Change4Life is centred around the idea that if families make a concerted effort to increase their activity levels and reduce the intake of high-calorie foods they will “live longer”. Sadly, Change4Life is based around the idea that being overweight and obese is the reponsibility of the individual or can be solved within the family. This ignores the clear association between socio-economic status and morbid obesity in the UK. People with less money tend to have less time to cook, and therefore tend to eat food which is cheap, easy to prepare and frequently unhealthy. Similarly, if you are poor you are more likely to lack access to space to exercise.
Basing a national anti-obesity campaign around the personal choices of individuals, rather than trying to improve the accessibility of healthy food or simply redistributing wealth, smells of a government trying to shirk responsibility on the issue. Policy-making in the UK is filled with examples like this. For instance one of the government’s responses to climate change is to make electric cars tax-free, with the aim of encouraging people to switch to electric cars. At the same time, the government has undermined this policy by being slow to improve the availability of charging points, with Rishi Sunak only just announcing investment in charging “hubs”. Currently, the government’s plan to boost the economy and save jobs relies on individuals risking their lives in restaurants and pubs, as opposed to the government investing in new areas for economic development.
This isn’t to say Change4Life was not a highly informative campaign. It provided information on healthier snacks, why certain fats are bad for us, and information on healthier alternatives to high sugar foods. Nonetheless, by ignoring key reasons for why people are obese, the government is harming the effectiveness of its policy response from the start.
Change4Life was too limited in scope. Change4Life did not help me ask why I wasn’t keen to exercise, it didn’t help me to analyse my own relationship with food; why I felt I had to overeat on a daily basis and it didn’t explain why I felt I had to steal from parents to feel happiness. Whenever I watched a Change4life advert as a young teenager I felt as if it was placing the sole responsibility for my weight loss on me, which I felt was unfair because, in my mind I was only eating for the relief it gave me following a difficult day at school. Those adverts didn’t challenge the availability of high sugar foods in our supermarkets and why those foods contain so much sugar. Change4Life did not even engage with the idea of body positivity, and it did not challenge fatphobia or society’s unrealistic body image standards that also influence weight gain and loss.
Similarly, the government’s new response to obesity does not interrogate our personal relationship with food and is based around people’s individual choices. ‘Can’t stop eating?! Well you can get a gastric band!’, ‘making too many impulse buys? Well we’ll make sure it’s a tiny bit harder for you to do so’. No UK government in my lifetime has ever encouraged its citizens to ask ‘why am I over-eating?’, ‘why don’t I like to exercise?’ or ‘why isn’t healthier food cheaper?’. I can point to three main changes in my life which helped me re-construct my relationship with food. Firstly, I was extremely lucky in that I had the opportunity to move to another country. This took me out of the school I had been in with various bullies and allowed me to feel like I had the chance to change. Secondly, I started having conversations with my parents around their relationships with food. We discussed how they felt shame around food when they were younger, and how both my mums (my parents are lesbians), had struggled with their weight and why that was. Previously, I had avoided such conversations as talking about food made me feel deeply depressed. Finally, I felt confident in my new school. For the first few weeks I tried to keep to myself to avoid comments around my weight, but a group of people were consistent in trying to make me feel welcome and this new found confidence (provided by a genuine effort to get to know me) gave me a taste of feeling good about myself. This taste inspired a desire to feel like this a lot more. Consequently, I started exercising by myself and I stopped eating excessively because I felt like I didn’t need the dopamine hit.
On the other hand, calorie counting, which worryingly features heavily in the government’s campaign, did not help me. Not only did calorie counting not alter my relationship with food, in that it made me starve myself causing me to binge eat, calorie counting effectively ruined my social life for years. It ingrained thought patterns which made it feel impossible for me to eat out and drink at all. Being a naturally anxious person, I decided to avoid all social events where I would be pressured into drinking for fear of putting on weight. When I did start feeling comfortable attending parties, I still didn’t drink and would always leave early feeling ostracised.
No UK government has ever tried to construct a consensus on what actually is a healthy relationship with food. Now, these may be complicated discussions to have, nevertheless it would be nice and significant to see a government try to have them, rather than hiding behind piecemeal interventions which might have success at the margins. Saying that, the government being the driver behind those conversations will not be enough to reduce obesity. Fatphobia needs to be tackled, as people who are overweight and obese will not be able to lose weight if they are being treated with disgust whilst they try. Equally, a government that is okay with hundreds of thousands of people using foodbanks is probably one which won’t solve obesity. Without increased financial support for those who struggle to afford healthy food, and more regulation around the amount of sugar in processed food, more difficult conversations around our relationships with food will become another example of an ill-thought individualised policy which this article has lamented.
With reports of children overeating to cope with the effects of coronavirus and the lockdown, producing a sound and effective policy response is extremely important before these children develop unhealthy relationships with food. Finally, until a government actually helps its population interrogate their personal relationships with food, obesity will continue to be a problem in the UK.