Healthy attitudes towards nutrition and practical, moderate approaches towards fat loss for health reasons need to be collectively reinforcedAmanda Lovelace, Schriever Air Force

Content Notice: This article contains discussion of weight, food, and exercise.

The coronavirus pandemic has undoubtedly brought attention to systemic issues within the UK government. The Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recently reported that obesity-related conditions, like type 2 diabetes and heart disease, can have a detrimental effect on COVID-19 recovery. As we all seek ways to reduce the pressure on the NHS, this is likely to bolster public health efforts to reduce obesity. However, the collective pull to tackle obesity isn’t collective at all, and government-implemented methods intended to reduce obesity are largely ignorant of external factors. 

For those who wish to lose weight, misinformation in regards to how to go about this and what constitutes a healthy diet is extremely prevalent. Though much of the NHS-led support for weight loss takes a moderate, practical approach, it is lost within the lies and fads of the consumerist side of dieting, from ketones to juice fasting. Many diets involve reducing calorie intake through rigid counting, or removing food groups. This is unsustainable and leads to an unhealthy mindset that often causes weight gain and leads to dangerous yo-yo dieting. Sustainable habits can’t match the outlandish promises of crash diets like the Military or Sirtfood Diet, meaning NHS advice often falls on deaf ears. 

"Appropriate resources and support - without stigmatization - should be available for those who want to pursue weight loss for health reasons."

Those lacking time, motivation or resources to research the science behind their efforts to lose weight can’t be blamed for turning to the product that shouts the loudest. Many household names are guilty of peddling misinformation, from influencers, to weight-loss groups, to the heavily criticised BBC series The Restaurant that Burns Off Calories (in which ingested calories were ‘exercised off’). 

Unfortunately, considering the diet industry was worth $72 billion dollars in 2019, this isn’t likely to end. The glorification of super-thin and ‘slim-thick’ bodies over others is a continuous source of profit for some, as lines between rudimentary formulae for healthy living and aesthetic-chasing ploys are becoming ever more blurred. 

The combination of the health-sacrificing, money-grabbing diet industry and negative social attitudes towards stigmatised appearances deserves some blame here. However, government interventions aren’t particularly helpful either. Though the sugar-tax has reduced the sugar content of affected drinks by 28.8%, this hasn’t significantly lowered consumption overall. The food labelling traffic light system stresses a number-centric approach to weight loss, meaning the nutrient-based approach to health is lost behind the graphics. Even the calorie content displayed on packaging has little effect on the formulation and consumption of processed food.

Last year, researchers suggested packaging should state the exercise required to “burn” calorie content. Not only does this propagate unhealthy attitudes to nutrition and exercise, it is also fundamentally flawed. Energy used varies greatly between individuals, based on countless factors including weight, muscle mass, and effort. The idea that calories exist to be ‘burned off’ in exercise ignores the highest proportion of our energy expenditure: BMR (basal metabolic rate), the energy used at rest. For even the least active adults, this is higher than the 1,200-calorie cookie-cutter weight loss plan propagated by many articles and institutions, including Good Housekeeping and Women’s Health Magazine.

" [...] austerity is partly to blame for high levels of obesity: low class-mobility and community finances are central to its ignored socio-economic aspects."

In a speech in 2019, Matt Hancock referenced the key factor of class: “as nations grow richer, it’s the poorest in them who are more prone to obesity”. It is difficult to see where this information has been put to use. One strategy could be to subsidise fruit and vegetables, wholegrains, and healthier alternatives. An extra subsidy for schools to offer these at a lower price may also be useful. Evidence suggests interventions like mindful eating and behavioural treatments that centre around relationship with food are significantly effective. These could be incorporated into a programme or app, replacing those lacking in behavioural theory and efficacy that already litter the market. 

Practical assistance for the implementation of healthy habits is the way forward. Perhaps the funding for pavements and cycle lanes we are seeing now should have been introduced long ago, nudging those who may not be able to pay for gym membership to increase their activity. Instead, we have seen quite the opposite, with many suggesting that austerity is partly to blame for high levels of obesity: low class-mobility and community finances are central to its ignored socio-economic aspects. 


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It is difficult to envision a future in which economic recovery from COVID-19 doesn’t include tighter austerity measures. This makes the idea of financial actions to reduce class-discrepancies in public health almost fanciful. But the government has a duty of care towards its country. Considering the multi-faceted nature of the obesity crisis, this duty of care is not being taken seriously enough. Those with access to the funding and research to implement evidence-based approaches should be doing so, and those who profit from the spread of misinformation and unhealthy attitudes towards food should face increased scrutiny and tax.

Appropriate resources and support - without stigmatization - should be available for those who want to pursue weight loss for health reasons. Until we consider the external factors dictating health, this simply cannot happen.

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