Boris Johnson is on a fitness drive, with all the fervour of a middle-aged man who’s discovered Crossfit. The only problem? He’s taking the nation with him.
Yesterday, the prime minister unveiled his newest initiative: Better Health. In short, it’s a scheme to ‘tackle’ obesity in the UK.
As the story goes, Johnson’s brush with Covid-19 has left him concerned about his health and, by extension, that of the general public he was elected to lead. A study was commissioned by Public Health England, the results of which were made public on Friday, revealing an apparently strong link between “excess weight” and being hospitalised after contracting coronavirus.
So the Tory government has decided to tread a well-worn path and take on deep-rooted issues of health in the country by attacking through the flank and pinning them all on weight.
In his tweet announcing the campaign, Johnson explicitly placed the burden of relieving pressure on the NHS on the UK population losing weight.
“If we all do our bit, we can reduce our health risks and protect ourselves against coronavirus – as well as taking pressure off the NHS,” he wrote.
Needless to say, the Better Health package has received a ton of backlash for the way it frames fatness and excess weight.
And while some ideas, like preventing advertising for “high fat, salt or sugar products” (sorry McDonald’s!) before the watershed, have been welcomed, others have rightly received pushback.
One in particular struck me: the proposed introduction of mandatory calorie counting on menus and in alcoholic drinks.
I’ve never been fat and can’t speak to it, so I won’t.
But I can talk about counting calories.
From childhood, I remember a concerted social campaign of fatphobia that internalised a dread of even the tiniest weight gain.
Vividly I can recall the walls in my high school Food Technology classroom, a space where we made leaking moussakas and deflated pizza dough. They were papered with newspaper cuttings depicting men and women with bulging bellies and headlines screaming about the dangers of weight gain.
From the off, even the curriculum designed to equip us with sustainable and healthy eating habits conveyed that nothing more than fat = bad. Never mind what was going on underneath; to be visibly fat was beyond the pale.
So when I inevitably developed my eating and exercise disorder, in the second year of university, I started by counting calories.
To count calories was almost akin to a rite of passage; as a young woman it seemed to be passing some invisible marker of adulthood and independence to be taking charge of my eating in such a way. After all, the women’s mags I’d pored over as a pre-pubescent held it up as some sort of gold standard. That stuff sticks. And it was so easy. All you had to do was read the back of packets! Obsessively! Of course, if you were in a restaurant, then it was more difficult but there were ways, means and apps.
Aided by an infamous food-tracking app that’s helped many a disordered eating habit flourish and mutate, I was soon flying. I’d gotten so adept at counting calories I was eating barely any of them. I would munch down on a single protein bar for breakfast and lunch before having a #clean carb-free, sugar-free, bowl of assorted vegetables for dinner. I would work out five days a week.
Last month I dug up some photos taken the year I was at my worst. I looked like a bird; my head too big for such a tiny little body.
At the time everyone was very impressed. “What’s your exercise plan?” they asked.
That experience (which, I am very aware is mild compared to that of many others) is why I’m certain sticking compulsory calorie counts on menus is such a terrible idea.
While education from young about healthy food choices and how to make them is vital, further pathologising individual dishes and food items, by linking them to loaded ideas about “good” and “bad” via a numbered system, is a surefire way to create a nation of people with unhealthy relationships with food.
America implemented calorie counting via federal law in 2018. It’s too early to be able to discern the effects, but according to research it does push some diners to make small changes to their orders.
Studies however, don’t focus on the psychological effect that this tactic – which is essentially food-shaming – has on people. At the time of writing, Downing Street has asserted they will not be consulting with eating disorder charities about any future implementation of the calorie counting plan.
A previous 2018 consultation apparently threw up mixed results, with several studies cited that found calorie labelling has an adverse effect on people with eating disorders.
In contrast, one found no change in behaviour while another piece of research the government included reported that while there was a negative impact in “unhealthy weight behaviours”, it was a trade off for a “larger likelihood” of participants engaging in “healthy weight control behaviours”.
Well, it’s not a trade off. Eating disorders are, of course, not limited to thin people.
Many fat individuals suffer from eating disorders but go undiagnosed or untreated, thanks to fatphobia. Calorie-counting, macro-tracking, scale-watching... any form of obsessive watching over numbers when it’s linked to weight tends to lead to trouble.
Given that the government’s research found that people are likely to eat 200 calories more than their average meal when they eat out, it’s also strange they’re launching this initiative at the same time as telling us we have to go to and ‘Eat Out to Help Out’ as national duty in the post-Covid 19 economy resuscitation.
“Eat Out,” the Tories are saying, “but within reason. Don’t actually enjoy yourself”. They may as well give us all giant bags of Huel and have done with it.
We could get into how our society sees health solely in terms of whether you’re visibly fat or not and that being fit and fat is perfectly possible, but that’s another article.
There are, of course, health benefits to losing weight for some people. But weight loss alone doesn’t make a healthy nation and isn’t the answer for everyone. Calorie counting is a hatchet job of a solution, one I thought we’d tossed into the recycling with Atkins and the limp joke that is ‘Fat Monica’ from Friends.
Far better instead to pour money earmarked for changing millions of menus into nutritional programmes for deprived communities or to provide community resources to be able to run educational farm-to-table initiatives from childhood. Perhaps even simply making expensive groceries cheaper. When a ready meal is fast, simple and costs less, why would anyone pick otherwise?
But one thing's for sure: Britain needs to balance its social attitudes to weight and health before it can even begin on its diet.