Maybe we are all fat.
Maybe we’re all lazy feckless layabouts who eat frozen chips because we’re too lazy to cut up potatoes, and pizza instead of salad because we’re too stupid to understand the concept of calories.
Or maybe we live in a world where we’re expected to commute for 2 hours to work an 8-hour day and when we get home we’re too tired to shop or cook. Maybe the poorest don’t have access to a car to take a trip to the supermarket and have to shop in their corner shop that only sells frozen food. Maybe we don’t work regular hours and planning meals so we can shop ahead is hard. Maybe the shops, and the food manufacturers and even the government make it much cheaper and easier to buy simple, pre-prepared, fat and sugar-laden foods when we’re tired and short of time.
Maybe a whole change of culture would be needed to address the real causes of obesity. So maybe it’s easier to say it’s your fault. Ban 2-4-1 promotions (unless it’s half price McDonalds Mon-Weds) and direct you to an app that orders you to eat an unsustainable 1400 calories a day and do some exercise, you fatty.
My feelings on the Governments’ new “Better Health” campaign over the last couple of weeks have been complex, but mostly very angry.
It seems that being overweight does have a link to worse outcomes for Covid-19, this makes sense, it does for many diseases. But then so does old age, and no one has asked if anyone has just tried not being quite so old?
I’m not denying that losing weight could have benefits for some people. I’d like to lose a couple of the pounds I put on over the last few months myself. Benefits to me would largely include not having to buy a whole new wardrobe now clothes are apparently required again. And, possibly, helping with my High Blood Pressure (though that is caused by another condition, and, interestingly, the Consultant has never actually mentioned my weight to me). The issues I have with the current campaign are mostly that addressing the issue as a simple one of personal responsibility and directing people to one size fits all cookie-cutter weight loss apps is both dangerous and unhelpful. Obesity might be a risk factor for many things, including worse COVID-19 outcomes, but it is not the sole indicator of health, it’s not even the main indicator, and it’s one that we often have less control over than we think.
Most of us; especially those of us that live a pretty privileged middle-class life; can, to a certain extent, control many things about our lives. How active we are, what, when and how we eat, the amount of water we drink, not adding salt to our food and a whole host of other small things. We can’t, actually, really control how much our body weighs. All bodies will react very slightly differently to exactly the same treatment, sometimes, the same body will react differently. Something we all know if we’ve tried to any exercise over the last weeks heatwave.
I downloaded the NHS Better Health app myself to check what advice it would offer me. I was invited to calculate my BMI to start with, and although the app did ask for my activity levels, the highest level it offered me was “Active” which apparently includes 60-150 minutes a week of activity. That particular week I logged over 500 active minutes, but with no other options, I selected “Active”.
I was then advised I had a BMI of 29.1, given a suggested healthy weight range that topped out at 66kg (I was just above this at my smallest back in 2015), and advised to lose at least 3.9kg.
Me at “still overweight”
My weekly guide gave me a daily calorie allowance of 1400 (I’ve been losing approximately 0.5kg a week on 2000 calories for the last couple of weeks) and directed me to their recipe app, as well as asking me to log my weight, daily calories, portions of fruit and veg and active minutes.
Now. I understand that as a qualified Personal Trainer with a couple of basic nutrition qualifications I’m probably not the target audience for this app, and that there’s a LOT of people out there who don’t log as many as 150 active minutes a week. But I’d also wager that there’s a lot of people in active jobs who need a lot more than 1400 calories a day. The advice given is all very basic, and I suspect there are very few people who haven’t read advice like “ditch takeaway coffees” and “grill or poach rather than fry your food” in newspapers and magazines. And yet as a nation, we are still overweight. So it’s unlikely that a new app giving us old advice is suddenly going to change that.
I have to say, probably my biggest issue with the campaign actually ISN’T that it uses BMI as the sole indicator of healthy weight or health in general. It ISN’T that it dumps all the responsibility for making “healthy choices” on the individual, not taking into account access to and the affordability of healthy food. It ISN’T even that it completely ignores the cultural norms of being asked to work long and irregular hours and then somehow have a home life AND fit in the time to meal plan and shop for this food.
No. I think my main issue is that they launched it AT THE SAME TIME as the Eat Out to Help Out campaign. They basically put a huge pile of delicious looking unhealthy food on a big table, told everyone it was free, but that instead, they should probably have a salad that they have to make themselves for twice the price. Of course, if you DO make the choice to eat unhealthy food and then get Covid-19 while packed into the indoor eating area of a restaurant and get very sick because you’re overweight. Well, it was your choice, wasn’t it? We did tell you to lose weight.
Wanting to lose weight is ok. You can be body confident and love yourself, and still want to lose a couple of pounds so your skirt fits a bit better. We can’t all afford to buy a whole new wardrobe every time there’s a pandemic that means we spend 6 weeks eating comfort food. But the Governments approach is a worrying one. I’m not going to cite any evidence for this because I don’t have any, but it feels like the fear many people feel around Covid-19, catching it and potential negative outcomes, combined with a constant message that losing weight can improve those outcomes is an explosive combination for the creation of disordered eating patterns. In an uncertain world, dieting can give you a feeling of control.
So, I’ve bitched for quite a while. What would I like to see a focus on instead?
Well, on a larger level it would be great to see poverty, both financial and time poverty, addressed. Working from home over lockdown gave many people back huge chunks of their day, wouldn’t it be great to see that continue? When I applied for Universal Credit when suddenly I couldn’t work at the start of lockdown I was pretty horrified to discover that not having children meant essentially our income would have to fall so low for us to receive even the basic UC that we wouldn’t even be able to afford our mortgage payments, let alone food, bills, or anything else. There are people out there trying to survive on that. They’re not worried about 1400 calories a day and fresh fruit.
On a more personal and less political level, if this is something that affects you, if you feel like you’d like to lose a few pounds, I’d urge you to first look at your “Why?”. Most people who come to me as a Personal Trainer talking about losing weight don’t have a strong answer to that. What they really want to do is feel great. They want to feel healthy, powerful, fit, strong and attractive. Downloading an app and eating 1400 calories might give you a smaller body, but it won’t give you health, and it won’t make you feel great.
Find an activity that makes you feel awesome and do it regularly, whether it’s lifting weights, yoga, running, swimming, or just walking and taking some mental space for yourself. Think about your base activity levels, move more during the day, get up and walk around, walk to the shops, walk the dog, walk to the kitchen to get a drink once an hour, just move.
Look at what you eat and drink and what makes you feel good. I don’t know about you but after a week of takeaways and wine over a holiday, or Christmas, for example, I feel awful. When I eat smaller regular meals, fresh or frozen fruit or vegetables and drink plenty of water I feel energetic (most of the time, not always, sometimes its 30 degrees outside and I can’t control that). I also feel great when I treat myself to an occasional takeaway, or a chocolate biscuit, or, occasionally, half a packet of chocolate biscuits. Eat to feel great, count calories if it works for you, eat mindfully, plan your meals, whatever works for you, but remember food if fuel. Fuel for your brain, your body and your life. It’s also a pleasure, and that’s ok.
Focus on making healthier choices an unconcious habit for the rest of your life, rather than a short term, quick fix.
Cut yourself some slack when times are tough, your mental health is just as important a part of your overall health as your physical health and they are intertwined more than we think.
If you feel you want to make a change, then start small, and focus on changing the habits that aren’t working for you. Then layer on more as needed. It’s all part of the creation of a future, healthier, happier you that’s more than your BMI.