Georgie Callé is a Town Councillor in Harpenden, and works in public relations. Over the past year she has lost over nine stone by following a healthy eating programme. She blogs about her journey to a healthy lifestyle and weight.
There’s no getting away from the fact the UK has a weight issue. It’s everywhere. From news articles and TV documentaries proclaiming the country to be the most obese in Europe to the judging faces watching a slightly large person in McDonalds and fat-shaming on Netflix.
With estimates of obesity-related illnesses costing the NHS £6.1 billion a year, it’s no wonder that politicians have started to get involved. At Party Conference last year, I attended an event on the topic hosted by the Centre for Social Justice (CSJ). The panel was full of big names: Zac Goldsmith, Jeremy Hunt and even Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall were there.
Over the course of the discussiom, the panel and attendees covered every conceivable angle on what makes people gain weight or lead unhealthy lifestyles. Everything from improving education to the environmental impact of large amounts of food consumption. Yet something was missing.
No one mentioned mental health.
Not one person during the panel discussion talked about the problem as anything other than national statistics. Nobody stopped to consider that the ability to lose weight is a personal issue. Behind the figures and public debate are individual people, each with their own challenges, but all are currently lumped together as a ‘problem’ that society needs to solve.
Every person has their own reasons for being heavier than BMI says they should be. Yet current Government policy does not reflect this. It just assumes that fat people are greedy and addicted to sugar; it doesn’t look at the psychology of what makes a person eat excessive amounts of food in the first place. It doesn’t consider that weight gain might actually be the result of something deeper than just being a sucker for food industry adverts. For example, a difficult time in life, a mental illness or, in some cases, an eating disorder.
Mental illness as a cause of obesity
Time for me to declare an interest. Having been overweight and, eventually, morbidly obese since I was 11 years old, over the past year I have lost over nine stone and am now approaching a heathy weight. I was part of the statistics.
Most people see this as some incredible feat of willpower but, for me – and many others I speak to as part of my weight loss group and Instagram community – that’s not the case. I was able to lose weight because, seeking help for an issue unrelated to food, I finally found a way to overcome the mental health problems that plagued me since childhood.
Policies aimed at reducing consumption of sugary or high fat foods, and helping children form lasting healthy habits in childhood will, of course, be critical in changing our society’s culture in the long-run. However, they do not help people who are already overweight, nor consider the background behind it. Personally, I believe no one sets out to be unhealthy, even if they are (as I was) comfortable in their own skin.
Policy shouldn’t just be about discouraging consumption. We also need to help individuals with their mental health, attitude to food and their personal reasons for weight gain.
Many people struggling with obesity are doing so as the result of depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, binge eating or another mental illness. There’s very limited research in this area, but a UK paper found a two-way relationship between weight and mood, and demonstrated that, people with low mood are more likely to eat large quantities of food (and vice versa).
What’s lacking in academic evidence is made up for anecdotally. The ability to lose weight is widely-talked about as being ‘all in your head’. But it goes deeper than that. Since going public with my weight loss and mental health journey, I’ve had a significant number of people, predominately women, message me on social media asking for help with how to lose weight whilst battling mental health problems. Their stories are similar to mine: bullying in childhood, depression, anxiety and low self-esteem leading to comfort eating or not feeling motivated to change their lifestyle.
In addition, there is a, rarely discussed, formally recognised eating disorder, directly linked to being overweight: binge eating. It is a serious mental illness by which people experience a loss of control and eat large quantities of food on a regular basis. Up to 50 per cent of people with an eating disorder could be suffering from binge eating. However, my personal experience it’s dismissed as overeating and rarely formally diagnosed.
How can we expect people to respond to messages on healthy eating, when they don’t have the tools to overcome their problems with food?
Helping overweight people in a meaningful way
The answer lies in joining up any future adult and childhood obesity strategies to the increase in mental health funding already promised. Offering Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) as standard practice for anyone who approaches their GP asking for help to lose weight, and changing current guidance to include asking patients if they feel that is why they struggle to maintain a healthy size, are two simple measures that could be implemented immediately.
However, this isn’t enough. Politicians need to put helping each individual with their personal circumstances – whether that’s a mental health, education or economic issues – at the heart of all campaigns on obesity.
Only when society stops demeaning people who are overweight and starts to work with people on their needs will we see significantly more of us motivated to lead healthier lives. I look forward to our party being the one to move this forward.