How to manage feelings of anxiety from the ‘Better Health’ campaign

07/08/2020

For many years the looming ‘obesity crisis’ has been a phrase that many of us will have heard about. With the UK now entering the fifth month of the pandemic, and many of us still unable to take regular exercise, Hannah Lewis, an expert-by-experience who is studying her PhD in eating disorder prevention, reflects on the recent government’s ‘Better Health’ campaign and provides advice on how to look after your wellbeing.

Last week, the government launched a new campaign called ‘Better Health’, which was initiated in a bid to encourage the population to lose weight in light of the recent pandemic. Whilst the campaign may have been well intentioned, the range of measures which were proposed and the mode of their delivery created a wave of backlash on social media, with many speaking out about how features of the campaign could be detrimental to their mental health and recovery from mental illness – particularly those who have experienced an eating disorder.

The measures introduced as part of the government’s wider Obesity Strategy – which has a stark focus on weight loss and BMI reduction – range from discounted memberships to commercial weight loss programmes to a renewed emphasis on calorie labelling, potentially to be included on menus in restaurants.

With the campaign running the risk of perpetuating weight-stigma and body-shame, you may be feeling confused and conflicted about these announcements. If you are unsure on how to approach your physical and mental health and wellbeing over the next few months, then it may be worth remembering the following facts and tips:

Remember: Don’t focus on numbers

BMI is a measure that calculates a person’s body mass by taking into account their height and their weight. It is the most common indicator used to determine whether someone is ‘underweight’ or ‘overweight’. However, aiming for a narrow “healthy” range of body size can encourage people to engage in disordered eating practices, which brings into question, as raised by people with lived experience in the More than a number report, the appropriateness of using body mass index (BMI) as an indicator for overall health.

This basic divide is seen by many as harmful at both the national policy and individual experiential levels, as it omits the complex relationships between people’s body shape and size and their overall health.

You have the right to refuse to be weighed and have a BMI measure calculated, and this No Weigh Card can support you in communicating this decision.

Exercise for nourishment, not punishment

It’s easy to think about exercise as a simple transaction, where you are trying to ‘get rid of’ calories consumed. This can lead to exercise becoming unenjoyable, and sometimes a compulsion, despite us knowing the physical and mental health benefits of physical activity.

Finding a type of movement that you actually enjoy is crucial, as well as partaking in physical activity with friends or as a part of a group, are ways to ensure that physical activity and exercise is a pleasurable thing as opposed to a way of punishing ourselves for the amount of calories consumed.

The We Are Undefeatable Campaign can offer lots of insights on navigating exercise whilst living with a mental illness or long-term health condition.

Listen to your body and practise eating intuitively

Intuitive Eating is an evidence-based framework which was developed in the 1990s. It is based on the principles of ditching diets and honouring hunger.

Intuitive Eating promotes the idea of listening to your body and respecting hunger and fullness cues, as opposed to becoming obsessive about restrictive and arbitrary public health or nutritional advice. Being fixated on calorie intake is not always the healthiest approach, as meals with less calories may be less nutritious.

Given the recent pandemic, our eating behaviours may have changed or adapted to the extremes of ‘rationing’ and ‘stockpiling’, which could reflect unhelpful, disordered eating behaviours such as restriction or bingeing. The London Centre for Intuitive Eating has developed a helpful toolkit to support you in your journey of Intuitive Eating.

Commercial weight loss programmes are ineffective

We have consistently heard from people with lived experience that being prescribed commercial weight-loss programmes after a rapid weight gain often encourages restrictive and unsustainable diets, which lead to further dramatic weight fluctuation and contributes towards distress, disordered eating and sometimes even diagnosable eating disorders.

These experiences have demonstrated that commercial weight-loss programmes adopt weight loss strategies that include advice similar to bulimic practices of binge eating and subsequent compensation through dietary restriction or compulsive exercising.

Reach out for support, and remember you are not alone

Navigating the transition out of ‘lockdown’ can be an anxiety provoking time regardless, and the added pressure of a government pressuring us to lose weight and reduce our BMI can make for a perfect storm. Remember you are not alone in feeling this pressure, and speaking to friends and family as well as charities such as Rethink Mental Illness and Beat, can be helpful in managing your mental health and wellbeing through these difficult and trying times. 

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