Image Credit: King Huang
On the 27th of July, the UK government announced a new plan to combat the problem with levels of obesity, and the number of people considered overweight in this country. The notion of helping a nation to lead a healthier lifestyle in itself is not problematic, but when we look at the way it is being executed, major issues can be seen.
The most obviously flawed aspect is the new rule for displaying the calories of meals on menus in restaurants with more than 250 employees. The complex issue of obesity, in contrast to the simplicity of this measure, would be laughable if it didn’t have the potential to be so damaging. This plan is likely to be devastating for those who struggle with eating disorders. Calorie counting is one of the most common practices for those suffering with eating disorders, and more often than not will perpetuate restrictive mindsets around food, that leads to obsession. This measure, therefore, represents an ugly part of diet culture mentality which tends to demonise certain food groups under the guise of ‘healthy living’. In this case, calorie-dense food is often the subject of shame, feelings which can spiral extremely easily. This kind of mindset can lead to attempts to micromanage, manipulate and control what you think your body needs, and; trying to shape yourself to unrealistic body standards, perpetuated by the media and often accelerated by body dysmorphia. For those in mindsets like these, restaurants will become another aspect of micromanagement, rather than what they’re meant to be - places that serve as a social tool to enjoy yourself and share time with people you love. What should be an opportunity for enjoyment turns into another chance to police your body.
Essentially, this plan fails to address how a lack of basic needs such as a stable income, good mental health, sufficient spare time, cooking space and equipment influences food consumption, and is therefore inadequate. This system, placed alongside the narrative of individual responsibility of health, sets people up to fail and blames those who have no choice when it comes to helping themselves.
These measures represent a wider narrative we see around health and responsibility in the UK in which people's food choices are seen as entirely autonomous from their socio-economic status. In this view, if people are unable to live a healthy life, then it is through some innate personal failure, rather than a representation of their place within a socioeconomic hierarchy designed to fail them.
Despite claiming to be ‘empowering everyone with the right information to make healthier choices’, this plan simply doesn’t understand why people are making the choices that they do. For example, it cites the issue of the high-calorie content within fast food as something people need to be more aware of. This seems to assume that people don’t know what’s good for them, and are constantly gorging themselves on fast food out of greed and ignorance. We seem to forget that it is a luxury to choose the alternative. To have the time, money and mental energy to be able to plan and cook healthy nutritious meals on a regular basis is a privilege that is not the reality for many. Imagine if you were in the position of someone raising children, working multiple jobs, on minimum wage and your main priority being survival, rather than maximising your health. It’s completely understandable to opt for buying food that is cheaper, energy-dense and easier to prepare than cooking from scratch with more expensive and often perishable ingredients.
There is a disappointing lack of nuance in terms of the narrative it creates around nutrition. Simple changes are being made for an extremely complex issue. When placed alongside the narrative that individuals themselves are solely responsible for their health, it will inevitably create a culture of shaming those who are unable to maintain a healthy lifestyle, despite being constrained by external factors.
For example, let's look at the measure of ‘legislating to end the promotion of foods high in fat, sugar or salt (HFSS) by restricting volume placements such as buy one get one free’. While this measure might indeed serve as a discouragement for the consumption of HFSS foods, this alone will be insufficient in changing broader diet patterns and thought processes around what we eat. If this measure was to be placed alongside a reduction in the cost of things such as fruit and vegetables, or an effort to increase the accessibility of these products where they are not commonly available, then real change is more realistic.
Putting calories on menus and making HFSS food more expensive is not going to change this cycle.