Obesity: Covid-19 — [Philip Davies in the Chair]

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 10:10 am on 10th November 2020.

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Photo of Wera Hobhouse Wera Hobhouse Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Justice), Liberal Democrat Shadow Leader of the House of Commons, Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Women and Equalities) 10:10 am, 10th November 2020

It is a pleasure to take part in this debate with you in the Chair, Mr Davies, and I congratulate Jim Shannon on introducing this important issue. It is also a pleasure to follow the hon. Members for Vale of Clwyd (Dr Davies) and for South West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous). The hon. Member for Vale of Clwyd is a GP and the vice-chair of the all-party parliamentary group on obesity, so he speaks with great authority on this subject.

I believe that we have to focus on the social inequalities that are at the very bottom of this issue. Let us tackle it from that perspective. Obesity is, of course, a major problem and can greatly increase a person’s risk of other health conditions. It is absolutely right that supporting people towards a healthier weight is a Government priority, and I fully support it. Any strategy aimed at tackling obesity must recognise that it is a complex condition with many underlying causes, including factors tied to socioeconomic issues. Managing weight is often not simply a matter of just eating less and exercising more. Unless that is recognised, this strategy will not be effective in the long term.

I want to say something about my experience as a councillor. Before I became a Member of Parliament, I was a councillor in one of our most deprived councils, and 10 years ago we tried to ensure that children learned how to eat healthily. If people cook their own food at least they know what is in it, so we tried to ensure that people knew how to cook. We then recognised, going even deeper into that, that a lot of families did not even have the means to cook. Some of the children had never seen water boil.

Those are the issues we face if we are talking about how to teach children early how to eat healthily, cook their own meals and know what is in their own food. Some families are at that level of deprivation: children have not learned to cook and have not seen their parents cook. That is how deeply we need to get into the issue. We need to understand that, without stigmatising families who live like that and without using language that shames people who are overweight. We must understand that, additionally, there are mental health problems and other deeper underlying problems that go with this issue. I urge the Minister to go deeply into that subject and recognise the social inequalities that lie at the bottom of it.

I want to talk about one particular aspect of the strategy that concerns me—calorie labelling in restaurants. There is limited evidence to suggest that that measure has a meaningful impact on tackling obesity. Worse still, it could be harmful for those at risk of living with or recovering from an eating disorder; that is, of course, at the other end of this problem. There is an epidemic of people suffering from eating disorders such as anorexia and bulimia and being underweight. Approximately 1.25 million people suffer from an eating disorder in the UK. It is also true that many people living with an eating disorder also live with obesity. Treatment, therefore, is not as simple as consuming fewer calories. The eating disorder charity Beat is one of many voices sharing concerns about that aspect of the obesity strategy, and I ask the Minister to look carefully into that concern. Calorie counting is well recognised as an unhealthy behaviour: one sufferer described it as an “all-consuming obsession” that “took over my life”. Learning to disregard calorie counts is a large part of recovery from an eating disorder. Having the freedom to go to a restaurant with friends or family—something that many of us take for granted—can be a very big step.

I highlight a quote from one of Beat’s volunteers:

“One of the greatest joys of recovery is being able to go to a restaurant for a meal with friends, and I enjoy going out now with my friends and family, but I really struggle to eat in public once I have noticed the calories. Once I have seen the number, I can’t stop my brain telling me I can only have the food with the lowest amount of calories.”

Research shows that individuals with anorexia or bulimia are more likely to order significantly fewer calories when that information is provided.

Eating disorders and obesity can in many ways be part of our somewhat strange relationship with food. People can go from obesity into bulimia—these things are connected—and it is important that we recognise that. I was extremely grateful to the mental health Minister for meeting me and representatives from Beat a few weeks ago. I appreciate the time she spent listening to our concerns about this element of the strategy, and I know she is committed to supporting those with an eating disorder. As chair of the all-party parliamentary group on eating disorders, I would welcome the opportunity to have another meeting with her and representatives of Beat to talk about that particular, very concerning aspect of the obesity strategy.

Yes, we absolutely need to recognise that obesity is a massive public health issue. We need to tackle it, and I welcome the fact that the Government have made it a priority. But it is important that we make sure that the strategy does not hit people with an eating disorder, such as anorexia or bulimia, in an adverse way.