‘I’ve been overweight since childhood. Boris Johnson’s obesity strategy won’t work’

·7-min read
Getty/iStock
Getty/iStock

Harriet, 56, from central Scotland, has been overweight ever since she was a child. In the 1970s, buying a school uniform that fitted her body required getting entirely different clothes from the other students. She already felt like she stood out. When she went swimming, people would make comments, stare or shame her. Later on, going to the gym, some of the equipment couldn’t take her weight, which made her want to hide away from the world rather than exercise.

Harriet’s parents took her to see a dietician but she says it was a “waste of time” as the problem wasn’t that she didn’t understand the principles of healthy eating, eating less or exercising more; those she was already desperately familiar with, lessons she describes as “ingrained”. “People assume you are stupid,” she tells The Independent.

As an adult, doctors have told her she is classified as obese (the most common NHS measure is BMI or body mass index which calculates your weight against your height). “It’s funny when the doctor says you are morbidly obese. No sh** sherlock. I am more aware of my size and the effects on my daily life than they are”. Harriet says for her weight loss is a “lifelong issue”.

Like Harriet, almost two thirds (63 per cent) of adults in England are classified as being overweight or obese – and one in three children leave primary school overweight or obese. Obesity-related illnesses cost the NHS approximately six billion a year, according to the Department of Health and Social Care.

On 27 July the government published details of a new “Better Health” campaign to target obesity. “The urgency of tackling the obesity time bomb has been brought to the fore by evidence of the link to an increased risk from Covid-19,” a spokesperson said. The campaign is very personal for Boris Johnson, who believes his weight was a contributing factor to the seriousness of his coronavirus, which saw him admitted to intensive care for a week in April.

It will include measures like: banning unhealthy food adverts before 9pm, ending ‘buy one get one free’ deals on foods high in fat, salt or sugar, labelling restaurant menus with calories, and labelling alcoholic drinks with hidden “liquid calories”.

Jamie Oliver has come out in support of the measures, saying it was a “huge step in the right direction”. But there has been criticism at the launch coinciding with the Eat Out To Help Out scheme, which incentivises families to dine out at restaurants, from Tam Fry, director of the National Obesity Forum who says the measures are “not enough”, and eating disorder charities who are worried about calorie counts.

Mr Fry said the prime minister had “completely disregarded” the former chief medical officer, Prof Dame Sally Davies’ 2019 report on childhood obesity. “Her 49 recommendations, taken together, did have a fighting chance of doing what the doctor ordered but Johnson’s meagre list falls woefully short,” said Mr Fry. People living with obesity have also told The Independent they do not believe the strategy is the right one.

Harriet says she thinks the strategy shows ignorance on the part of the government: “It does not address the root cause of obesity and shows the total lack of understanding.” She describes obesity in the same terms as eating disorders like anorexia: “If I was anorexic people would feel sorry for me. If I was pulling my hair out because of an obsession, or was self harming in other ways, people wouldn’t say just stop doing it. It seems acceptable still to jeer at fat people.”

In this way she says obesity is a “cycle” that cannot be broken as if it is a lifestyle choice, simply by adding calories to a menu or not showing TV adverts. “We [obese people] can probably tell you the calories in food better than a thin person” she says. “Most fat folk can tell you so much about different diets, the effect on your bones, heart, liver, because we are bombarded with it.”

“And to limit junk food adverts is just nonsense. It doesn’t support or encourage people, quite the reverse. It is saying we are too stupid not to want a burger when we see one. Again, it is about guilt. You should feel guilty about being fat.”

I also think it’s pretty rich when they just announced discounts at the likes of Pizza Hut...”

Sophie, 26, from Stockport, who has been classified as obese for around five years, also believes mental health is often the root cause, rather than not knowing the number of calories in a cake versus a piece of fruit. “Even if curing obesity were as simple as eating less and that’s it, it could take years to even get to an ‘overweight’ BMI. It doesn’t happen overnight and you have no idea what point somebody is up to in their health journey just by looking at them.”

“I think the plans are nothing new. It’s the same spiel and adds to the age-old stereotype of obese people; they’re uneducated, lazy slobs who eat too many takeaways because they’re greedy. It points the finger at ‘fixing’ already obese people rather than preventing obesity. I also think it’s pretty rich when they just announced discounts at the likes of Pizza Hut,” she says.

Will, 39, from Manchester, weighs 17 stone and is also technically classified by his doctor as obese, despite being healthier than many of his friends (he is a distance runner, drinks moderately and is a vegetarian). He thinks the new strategy is “born of the government wishing to be seen to be doing something rather than actually doing something”.

He says: “The way the Tories treat everything is as Libertarianism in a vacuum, the assumption that everyone’s lifestyle is fixable by making easy choices. This initiative seems to be part of a general move towards blaming individuals for collective failures and this particular attempt seems more ham-fisted than most.”

Marie, 42, from Loughborough, has been classified as obese by her doctor since the age of 10. As an adult – studying for a PhD in nutrition – she has been subject to fat shaming by colleagues. “They said I was too fat to be taken seriously.” At her heaviest she was 32 stone, she is now a size 20-24 in clothing.

One of Marie’s problems with the “obesity” classification used by doctors is that it doesn’t leave room for nuance – just seeing people as “fat”. “What I find really hard is that when I was both sizes, the classification was the same. I lost 11 stone and thought it was an achievement until I visited my GP,” she says.

She says using terms like “battle against obesity” are dangerous territory as it can be misunderstood that you’re either on the “good or bad side”. Unlike the others she thinks the strategy is good in principle but the devil will be in the detail. “The focus on weight loss alone is a little concerning, any improvement in health indicators and exercise is a positive step.”

If you are poor and down to your last fiver, you’re going to pick what feels more like a meal regardless of health...”

Sophie says a better approach would be to incentivise shops and farmers to market and produce more whole foods like grains, fruit and vegetables, to educate people on cooking and lower the price of ingredients. “A bag of carrots costs 52p at Asda as opposed to a king size Pot Noodle for 70p. If you are poor and down to your last fiver, you’re going to pick what feels more like a meal regardless of health.”

Marie says it would also be beneficial to address social issues that contribute to obesity, not just trying to get people to eat less. “Unless someone is shown how to do this, and fit it into a busy lifestyle, this is a useless response. Education and the psychology of eating all play a key part. Additionally social considerations such as the increase in food banks and deprivation cannot be ignored. What seems to be missed is that obesity is not just about over eating, its also a sign in some cases of malnutrition,” she says.

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