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Are the UK's New Obesity Guidelines Dangerous for Eating Disorder Sufferers?

Public Health England's new healthy eating campaign recommends a breakfast of 400 calories, and lunch and dinner of 600 calories each.

by Ruby Lott-Lavigna
07 March 2018, 2:55pm

Photo via Flickr user A Healthier Michigan.

This week, Public Health England launched a new campaign attempting to curb Britain’s growing obesity crisis. In it, the government organisation called for companies to cut calories in products consumed by families by 20 percent, and encouraged people to limit portion sizes by reducing the calories consumed at breakfast, lunch, and dinner.

According to Public Health England, the strategy is an attempt to save the NHS £9 million in treating obesity-related illnesses, and avoid up to 35,000 premature deaths a year. The campaign, which recommends 400 calories for breakfast, and 600 for lunch and dinner, follows the news earlier this month that millennials were on track to become the most overweight generation of Brits. To summarise: we’re all getting really fat.

However, despite the dangers of a national obesity crisis, Public Health England has garnered criticism for its approach to weight management. News of the campaign prompted Guardian food columnist Felicity Cloake to publish a piece on the new meal guidelines, which pointed out the calories in certain foodstuffs, including that “an apple, a pot of Greek yogurt, and a spoonful of honey [were] (336 calories).” However, many have taken issue with Cloake and Public Health England’s focus on calorie-counting.

Eve Simmons, The Mail on Sunday’s deputy health editor, pointed to the dangers of an obsessive focus on calories. In a tweet, she wrote, “I adore @FelicityCloake but even this I found pretty triggering 3 yrs into recovery. This #calorie BS is turning everything sacred sour.”

Another Twitter user, Emily Kate, tweeted, “Dear Public Health England, blanket Calorie counting & calorie limits 4 children & young people (and adults 4 that matter).... you’ll need to treble the specialist resources for eating disorder teams. Best wishes, A very concerned eating disorder psychologist.”

Indeed, a US study by the National Center for Biotechnology Information, noted that calorie counting, when used with fitness tracking technology, has negative effects on people with eating disorders. The study, published in 2017, found that individuals who reported using calorie trackers manifested higher levels of “eating concern” and “dietary restraint.”

A spokesperson from UK charity Anorexia and Bulimia Care gave MUNCHIES their view on whether a focus on calorie-counting could be dangerous for eating disorder suffers: They said: “Although we are mindful of the obesity crisis, at least a million people in the UK struggle with eating disorders which are the leading cause of deaths due to mental health and are on the rise.”

They continued, “We do not find fixed calorie quotas helpful, particularly for those who under-eat, are fearful of calories, children, and those who exert a lot of energy through exercise. An over-emphasis on calories can cause people to see food in terms of numbers, become fixated on them and fearful, rather than focussing on health and energy.”

Dr. Alison Tedstone, chief nutritionist at Public Health England, defended the new campaign. She told MUNCHIES: “There’s no doubt people coping with the difficulty of an eating disorder require support. Our 'One You' campaign provides a rule-of-thumb to the general population and is not a weight loss programme. With two-thirds of adults overweight or obese, the 400-600-600 [calorie] tip helps people choose healthier options when eating out and about.”

So that’s a no to the Egg McMuffin sandwich, then?