As a nation, we have a bad relationship with food. Yes, all of us


If research by pollsters YouGov is anything to go by, 46% of people in the UK have gained weight since the outbreak of Covid-19 (Picture: Getty Images)

Rarely a day passes by without a headline containing the word ‘obesity’. 

As a nation, it’s safe to say we are completely obsessed with body shape and size — and at no time has this been truer than right now. You see, after a year when the majority of us have had our freedoms curtailed in the pursuit of fighting a deadly virus – therefore spending more time at home than ever before – it seems we’ve piled on the pounds.

I know, I know, I didn’t see it coming either (of course I did). But if research by pollsters YouGov is anything to go by, 46% of people in the UK have gained weight since the outbreak of Covid-19.

Around 33% of respondents globally said their weight had increased between one and 10 pounds, with 64% of these people putting this down to a lack of physical exercise, while 43% believed they were ‘eating too much’.

The UK Government has made no secret of its intention to use Covid-19 as a prompt to ‘tackle obesity’, announcing a strategy fronted by the prime minister himself last summer.

The Department of Health and Social Care for England’s strategy includes six measures, including the much criticised introduction of compulsory calorie labelling in restaurants and banning unhealthy food adverts before 9pm to keep children from seeing them.

But will it work? Dolly Theis, a PhD student from the MRC Epidemiology Unit at the University of Cambridge, who specialises in obesity policy isn’t convinced. 

‘2021 marks 30 years of government obesity policies in England,’ she tells me. ‘Our analysis of all 689 government policies found that overall they were unlikely to be effective and equitable, and were largely proposed in a way that would be unlikely to lead to implementation.’

She continues: ‘The government has tended to focus on telling people to change their own behaviour without helping shape the environmental, socioeconomic and other such factors to make living a healthy life easy.’

I’m often asked to speak on panels and radio shows or write articles on the issue of obesity, ostensibly because I have some first-hand experience of being obese, losing weight, gaining weight and the difficult impact this can all have on our emotional (and physical) health.

Can we really blame people for having such a complicated relationship with food and eating when they grow up in a society that is replete with such extreme mixed-messaging?

When they ask, as they almost always do, what would make things better, my answer is always the same: more compassion. 

I want to say here that I truly believe that body mass index (BMI) is an outdated metric, that you can be heavy and healthy, and that the simple fact of being naturally thin doesn’t mean conversations about healthy eating and nutritional habits don’t concern you – or that you are qualified to judge those who do tend to gain weight.

As with everything, it should be left to the individual alongside relevant medical professionals to decide what healthy looks and feels like for them – taking their mental health as a primary consideration in any decision-making.  

Given that this subject never seems to escape the public and political discourse, causing an incredible amount of emotional damage to those existing at every point of the weighing scales – isn’t it time we tried something new?

The fact of the matter is that, as a nation, we have a bad relationship with food. Yes, I mean all of us. It’s not our fault; we’ve been socially programmed that way. And if you are reading this and feeling bad about the fact that over the past year you’ve found solace in food during an objectively stressful period in human history, I’m here to tell you that’s not your fault either. 

Can we really blame people for having such a complicated relationship with food and eating when they grow up in a society that is replete with such extreme mixed-messaging? Eat good food but not too much, cut out fat, don’t cut out fat, cut out carbs…. don’t cut out carbs.

Eat healthily but also, these biscuits are much cheaper if you buy four times the quantity, and did we tell you about this new, tasty food that contains half of your weekly recommended sugar intake? It’s good, you should try it! Just don’t get fat.

And don’t even get me started about Britain’s alcohol culture, where politicians romanticise drinking as a way of relating to voters.

Isn’t it all just so tiring? Existing in this world where it is just so hard being healthy? Constantly swinging from new theory to new theory about how to lose weight, while also battling temptation at every turn? Trying to escape the shame that is piled on those whose bodies don’t somehow manage to exist in this context without gaining weight?

And wouldn’t it be so much nicer – and easier – if the world we lived in was set up in such a way as to be supportive of our attempts to live in a healthier way?

As humans, our eating is inextricably linked to our emotions

It’s really not that hard. First and foremost we need to throw out the idea that thin equals healthy. This has been debunked a million times over by medical experts who note that body weight isn’t the best indicator for overall health and that diet is far more influential regardless of size. Then we must admit that as a nation, we could all do better with our eating habits.

Second, and this is where government policy comes in, things would be much better if we lived in an environment that made the healthy option the most easy, convenient, affordable and appealing.

Implementing legislation that seeks to reduce the direct influence the food and diet industries have over individuals and the choices they make would be a good place to start. 

Third and perhaps most importantly, is increased funding into mental health services to support those with a disordered relationship with food — whether they’re dangerously thin or fat, or anywhere between and struggling.

As humans, our eating is inextricably linked to our emotions — the number of people leaning on food over the past year of stressful lockdowns proves this. Forging healthy coping mechanisms that don’t revolve around food is also something children must be taught in school from a young age.

As it stands, we’re set up to fail. Like the serpent that eats its tail we will just keep going on and on in a blame game where no one wins.

If the Government truly wants to address obesity in this country, focusing all its energy on shaming fat people with claims about personal responsibility isn’t going to work. Not at all.

At best, it will further cement health inequalities, at worst, it will ruin lives. 

Start with the assumption that most people just want to do the best they can with the resources they have — whether emotional or financial — and create a world in which they are empowered to do just that.

Because that’s a world I and many others actually want to live in. That’s the world we deserve to live in. 

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