17 December 2019

By Hope Virgo, Author and Mental Health Campaigner

You may have seen plastered all over the media a proposal to add exercise labels to all food packaging as a way to combat the obesity crisis.

When I woke to see the headlines, I was extremely concerned. I immediately felt this sense of dread rush through my body, not just for me but the millions of other people struggling with eating disorders or in recovery from one. I developed anorexia when I was 13 years old and a huge part of my illness was wrapped up in over-exercising. That competitive mindset that anorexia puts you in, followed by a need to burn off everything you allow yourself to have in your body. I won’t ever forget the nights of working out in my room trying to make myself feel okay about what I had eaten. And on top of that managing that guilt day in and day out.

Had this kind of labelling been on food when I was in the grips of my illness, I know it would have exacerbated it further. I would definitely have been impacted by this. I learnt the calories of everything; imagine then being able to readily learn the exercise amount to burn it off! It would have controlled my life even more.

I would definitely have been impacted by this. I learnt the calories of everything; imagine then being able to readily learn the exercise amount to burn it off!

The research I am talking about was published by Loughborough University. They found that by adding exercise labels on to food that participants chose lower-calorie food options. The focus for them is on combatting obesity but they miss the complexity of this issue.

The extremely simplistic nature of this idea fails to take into account so much. It is not looking at the wider impacts but a select few. Not only this, but it is implying that everyone with obesity is lazy! I recently spent some time with a binge eating group and more often than not when they go to the doctor, their doctor will tell them that they need to exercise more. This isn’t fixing their mental health problem but further fuelling the stigma they face. They aren’t lazy, they have mental illness and a difficult relationship with food.

Whilst not everyone with an eating disorder struggles with exercise, and these labels wouldn’t necessarily cause eating disorders, what I guarantee you is that they would do more harm than good. They would push us even further into a society which is so wrapped up in food, calories, dieting and exercise.

This isn’t fixing their mental health problem but further fuelling the stigma they face. They aren’t lazy, they have mental illness and a difficult relationship with food.

Looking further than anorexia and exercise obsessions, there are three other big cause for concerns to highlight:

Firstly, that each person is unique, we all have different exercise needs and abilities and we are all different. We need to stop looking at generic measures but look at the entire person and their life.

Secondly, the study was done to find a way to tackle the obesity crisis but in actual fact it fails to explore why people are obese. The study implies that it is due to laziness, but actually it might not be. It might be because of an individual’s mental health, where they live in the country, what their background is, how much money they have… There are so many causes that need to be explored!

Finally, how triggering it will be for individuals when they walk into a shop and see the amount of exercise they “need” to do to eat something? It creates a completely unhealthy relationship with food. Food is about enjoyment and isn’t something we should earn. Yes, we have an obesity crisis but we also have an epidemic of people with eating disorders, serious and too often life-threatening mental illnesses.

how triggering it will be for individuals when they walk into a shop and see the amount of exercise they “need” to do to eat something? It creates a completely unhealthy relationship with food. Food is about enjoyment and isn’t something we should earn.

One size does not fit all eating disorders and it certainly doesn’t fit this justification to tackling obesity with food labels!

We need instead to be educating schools, parents, carers and young people on a healthy lifestyle; removing the focus from food and exercise as a punishment and focus instead on moderation.

We need to invest the money that we are putting into labelling foods into rolling out campaigns around health. So often these have been done in the past to scare people. And trust me, the scaring doesn’t work. We need positive messaging, real stories, and to stand strong against the stigma people still face day in day out because of their weight.

We need positive messaging, real stories, and to stand strong against the stigma people still face day in day out because of their weight

We need to be looking at the mental health of individuals. Looking at the whole person, their background, where they grew up, their family income. This may help establish what might be causing them to develop obesity or other issues around food. It is vital we don’t ignore the health inequalities across the country: poverty will have an impact on this and we need to make sure we are reaching everyone with the right support.

The scary impact of these plans to label up food is the unknown. How many people will feel triggered, how many people develop an unhealthy relationship with food…

I know I for one would struggle with this in shops, despite being 11 years into my recovery.