The Flip Side of New Guidelines From NICE For Tackling Childhood Obesity Could Lead To A Bulimia Epidemic…

Have you noticed we’ve got a problem of extremes?

On the one hand we’re seeing widespread obesity that’s even affecting very young children. Then at the other end of the spectrum, there are young people and adults suffering from eating disorders such as bulimia and anorexia.

There’s no question in my mind that food and our relationship to it is having a damaging affect on many people. And I reckon the jury is still out on how it should be tackled. That’s because although there are national initiatives being explored to tackle the obesity problem, in my opinion they just give lip service to the problem because they don’t actually tackle the root cause. And as a result, even if we help make people “thin” – the emotional damage could have wide-reaching consequences.

Let’s take childhood obesity.

Just this week I was reading on the BBC  about what the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) beleives should be done.  One of the solutions they’ve outlined in their new public health guidelines for England is to tackle the problem by giving children food-and activity diaries as part of a family-based lifestyle programme.

Now this may sound like a logical solution. Give children a tool where they can write down everything that they eat and all the activity that they do – and in turn they can monitor their lifestyle and make appropriate changes.  Isn’t this what alot of adults constantly try to do (with little success)?

Fuel for the playground bullies

Nice idea, but in my opinion this approach is seriously flawed.

To start with, it sends a message that there is something fundamentally wrong with them – that they are in some way flawed and need fixing.

In addition, it will make already vulnerable children even more prone to damaging playground taunts. And as you know, bullying can have long-term consequences as it undermines confidence and self-esteem (all cited as causes of bulimia). In turn, this influences their future outlook and the way they feel about themselves

What’s more, as an extreme side effect, food focus can also lead to eating disorders. After all, the emotional reasons for comfort eating, bingeing, purging and self-starvation go much deeper than a logical understanding that lots of fat and sugar and limited exercise can lead to weight gain.

And as usual with knee-jerk responses, the solution only deepens the problem.

It’s a sticking plaster

But for me, the biggest problem of offering food diaries, as a solution is they only focus on the individual, totally dismissing the wider societal context within which obesity and eating disorders have become such a common problem.

Let’s talk about this in some more detail…

There are much wider issues at play

It seems ridiculous to me that NICE is suggesting the introduction of food diaries to tackle the issue of obesity whilst the food industry are allowed to keep filling our plates with processed foods, high sugar snacks and manufactured rubbish. As a nation we’re spending less time in the kitchen preparing food from scratch and are instead more reliant on food manufactures to save us time and make food preparation as easy as an “open the packet, pop into the microwave and serve”. And if you look at the contents of these foods they’re often packed with sugar, fructose corn syrup and other junk that has little nutritional value.

So on the one hand there’s concern for obesity (even sending heavily overweight individuals to commercial weight loss programmes), whilst on the other hand powerful, subliminal advertising continues to cause confusion and confliction in the minds of both the young and the old.

Thin is beautiful and fat is ugly – that message is everywhere you look. BUT the supermarket shelves are filled with purposefully positioned, processed junk foods whilst powerful targeted and timed TV advertising seduces and tempts us to buy them.

As a nation, it seems to me that we’ve blindly handed over our health to the food manufacturers. The recent horsemeat scandal is one example of this where we lost control over the meat that ended up on our dinner plate. Food labelling is confusing and often misleading. Just check the ingredients of so called health foods and you’ll find they’re laden with sugar or sugar substitutes. In addition, fat has been made into the enemy and something to avoid – despite being essential and necessary for the healthy functioning of our body.

It’s a bloody mess and children are the innocent victims. Something has to be done and it’s not introducing food diaries for the obese.

So what is the alternative, Julie?

Instead of focusing on food, I’d like to see children being empowered to love and accept themselves and their bodies and to discover their natural gifts and talents. This cultural obsession with celebrities and get rich quick mentality is, I believe, undermining children’s potential by misleading and confusing them about what is valuable.

Surely we are far more than just our physical appearance?

And surely it’s better for our children if they are raised into a society that celebrates uniqueness, focuses on what beauty lies beneath the surface and encourages them to live a life that they love based on what motivates and inspires them – not based on what the latest celebrity or reality TV star is up to.

I believe we all have our unique gifts that we have a responsibility to bring to the world.

And I believe the best way to bring those strengths forth is to encourage children’s self-esteem and confidence – and part of that is by giving them positive role models to encourage self-acceptance and expression.

Many of the young women I help recover from bulimia have deep-rooted self-esteem issues. They believe they’re fat, unattractive and not good enough because they constantly (and often subconsciously) compare themselves to the thin images they see smiling down at them from the billboards or the TV screen. And what’s even more disgusting about this influence is these images are not even real. Instead they’re photo-shopped, airbrushed and staged to achieve a particular look.

How is it we’ve allowed ourselves to create a society where we celebrate a look that isn’t even real and cause people to feel rubbish about themselves and their bodies because they don’t stack up to this perfect image?

How is it we’ve allowed ourselves to create a society where millions are trapped in a lifestyle of dieting and deprivation and where food, that is fundamental for life, has become something to fear?

The food manufactures need to be held to account and we need to realise that dieting and food watching is NOT a solution. In fact, dieting strategies impose rules and restrictions that ultimately cause stress – and a stressed body can never find its ideal weight and be balanced. The dark side of dieting is very real.

As a society we need to heal our relationship with food – not further undermine it.

For years I struggled with bulimia. I was terrified of getting fat and food was something I feared. In that time I lost myself and could only define myself  by the reflection in the mirror, the number on the scales and what I did or didn’t eat. I know I’m not alone and what a waste when you consider what lies beneath the surface.

I think it’s time we got children inspired about who they are at their core – and not by how much they weigh. And whilst there is evidence that obesity is detrimental to health – do not underestimate the wide reaching effects on children of low self-esteem and poor body image.

But what do you think? I’d love to know, so please leave your thoughts in the comments below.

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