I have just eaten a white chocolate chip cookie. This may not be the healthiest choice, but it is a choice I am proud to have made. I have resisted the temptation to check the list of numbers on the back of the packet. I have resisted the urge to claw this food back out of my body. I have resisted the compulsion to count calories, rather than resisting food I do not need to deny myself.
I started counting calories when I was 13. My 15-year-old sister’s Slimming World ‘syns’ pinned to the fridge reminded me that eating is calculated, that you must think twice before allowing yourself food. At 14, my friends boasted that they only ate 1200 calories a day. I could beat that – a fitness app allowed me to knock down the calorie input to three-figure totals, and then double-digits. Meanwhile, the calorie counter on the gym equipment kept rising, as I watched through blurred vision adverts of ‘summer bodies’ and Burger King, keeping pace with tinny dance music until I flirted with faintness.
“I’ve worked hard to overcome my own eating disorder… Hearing the government’s latest Change4Life campaign was a blow to my hard-won recovery.”
The campaign, targeted at both children and parents, advises children to only eat 100 calorie snacks, with a maximum of two snacks a day. The campaign is attempting to tackle childhood obesity but teaching children to count calories is an unhealthy and inappropriate method of achieving this. Calories don’t indicate the health impact of foods, and calorie-counting is an ineffective way to create a more nourishing diet. 100 calories can still be 100 calories of processed sugar, not contributing to health or sating hunger. The eating disorder charity Beat expressed concerns that the campaign “could be harmful for young people susceptible to disordered eating”.
I am not the only person in our society to obsess over food. I’d argue it’s a cultural phenomenon. More than ever before, we have huge variety in the food we eat, we eat out more, have countless different diets and food ‘lifestyles’, and have conversations about food ethics. Everyone knows an amateur Instagram foodie who won’t take a bite until they find the right lighting for a snap. More than any previous generation, we have a complicated relationship with the food we eat. The last two decades have seen an increase in prevalence of eating disorders and of obesity in the UK – for some people, our attention to food has correlated with debilitating health conditions. I’ve worked hard to overcome my own eating disorder, something that is a continuous, conscious struggle. Hearing the government’s latest Change4Life campaign was a blow to my hard-won recovery.
“calorie-counting is a seemingly harmless but ultimately dangerous and addictive slippery slope”
In my own experience, calorie-counting is a seemingly harmless but ultimately dangerous and addictive slippery slope to an unhealthy mentality about food. Instead of teaching children and parents to focus on relatively meaningless numbers, we should be encouraging them to pick more nutritious snacks that aren’t high in sugar – focus on nutrition, not numbers. When I watch my little brother checking the calories in his primary school lunchbox, I worry a campaign like this is more likely to encourage an eating disorder than prevent the development of childhood obesity. I do support Change4Life’s aim to educate parents and children on eating healthily, but calorie-counting is not the answer.
What do you think of the Change4Life campaign? Could it do more harm than good? Or do we need it to help reduce childhood obesity? Does the government even have the right to advise us what to eat? Let us know your thoughts.