NI Obesity Epidemic: Media Shock Tactics

This week is Eating Disorder Awareness Week and it seems timely to reflect on issues around obesity, media coverage and eating disorders as well.

Northern Ireland is, apparently, in the grips of an “obesity epidemic“. We have a ten year obesity strategy, courtesy of Edwin Poots. The Public Health Agency launched a campaign last year to “tackle the problem”. Meanwhile, we have also seen a big rise in eating disorders, particularly among men, while our health provision to treat people with these disorders and support them in their recovery is far behind what is available across the UK and has, in fact, been branded “shameful” by patients and carers in 2012. Things have not improved much since then.

Eating, diet, people’s weight, obesity are all very complex issues. They are tied up with social issues, such as poverty and education. They are tied up with mental health, stress, depression, anxiety, trauma, shame and stigma. They are tied up with nutrition, quality of diet, portion size. They are tied up with culture, physical ideals and the media. They are tied up with lifestyle, people working longer hours with less time to shop and cook, access to the outdoors, sedentary work and school patterns. They are tied up with health, mobility, wellbeing, life expectancy and quality of life. There is no one definitive factor and no quick and easy solution.

There are, however, many reductive and even harmful ways for the media to discuss this.

In the last two weeks, the local papers and radio stations have all reported on these two stories.

1) Belfast people are the “unhealthiest eaters in the UK” and…SHOCK… apparently they aren’t filled with guilt about this. Yes, the word guilt was used freely in relation to a story to do with food, obesity and body image. Ok.

2) We are struggling to control our portion sizes and this is why we are all obese now. Forget that list above of some of the many many reasons people struggle with their weight and/or eating disorders. No, it’s portion sizes we need to worry about. Along with a lovely picture of a dismembered fat body part encased in jeans, just to underline the point.

And now the story of the day today is that EDANI: NI website offers support for eating disorders. This is, of course, great and positive news. It doesn’t quite make up for our poor healthcare provision for people struggling with eating disorders, but it’s something. The local media do not, apparently, see any disconnect between stories telling us we are addicted to junk food, lacking in guilt and unable to control ourselves or our portion sizes…and the rise in eating disorders locally necessitating this website.

Of course this is not purely caused by the media. The list of factors affecting people’s weights and eating habits is, as outlined above, extremely long and complex. But surely this type of shock headline reporting is not constructive?

How do you feel about this? Do you find these shock tactics effective, concerning or off putting?

If you or anyone you know is struggling with an eating disorder, please contact Eating Disorder Association NI

  • chrisjones2

    Many of our MLAs seem to have an eating disorder. They eat money at a ferocious rate and just cannot control themselves

    Time for a diet?

  • Reader

    W[R]ite Noise: The local media do not, apparently, see any disconnect between stories telling us we are addicted to junk food, lacking in guilt and unable to control ourselves or our portion sizes…and the rise in eating disorders locally necessitating this website.
    Maybe the local media regard over-eating as an eating disorder? I know I do.
    It may be a matter of definition, but if they are right, then it is the most dangerous eating disorder of them all. Either way, they could be helping thousands and thousands of people, at the expense of a few who will take the wrong message.
    Personally, I would go for the wellbeing of the many, rather than the few.
    I get the impression that you don’t see the trade-off in the same terms?

  • Old Mortality

    ‘They are tied up with lifestyle, people working longer hours with less time to shop and cook…’
    Are you serious? Obesity is more prevalent in the underclass which is unburdened by working hours (officially, at least).
    And do you think people were better off 50 years ago when obesity was much less commonplace?

  • I would tend to agree that over eating or obesity could in certain circumstances potentially be classed as eating disorders. But I don’t necessarily think it is helpful to tell someone with an eating disorder to eat less, any more than telling someone struggling with anorexia or body dysmorphia to eat more. And shock tactic headlines, much like the shock tactic DOE road danger ads, have little impact on the groups they are supposedly targeting. To my mind, more consideration would be a good thing.

    But it’s interesting to hear your perspective and that you take something positive and potentially helpful from these types of stories.

  • I am certainly not an expert but I think I made the point above that obesity and / or eating disorders are not caused or triggered by any one single factor, rather a complex combination of those listed above, plus many others, and this will vary greatly from person to person.

    I don’t think i implied people were better off in 1965 but you are certainly right that obesity was much less prevalent at that time. And again, there is, to my mind, no one single factor that can fully explain how and why this is the case.

    But please do let me know what your take on it is.

  • Joe_Hoggs

    Quick question, how many people can watch “Coronation Street,” “Emmerdale” or indeed some other soap or reality TV programme which now seem to dominate our TV schedules without eating something? I know I can’t and it’s that subconscious culture that contributes in a small way to obesity.

    The author gives a good description of the complex effects of over eating and what contributes towards it. I am reluctant to blame “working longer hours” as work even of the non-physical variety has the tendency to burn calories due to our minds being in active use and besides in modern times with improved holidays and better working times than in the past I feel this is less of an issue.

    I wonder if the something as simple as the weather is to blame for us in NI and even across the UK? It’s frequently wet and cold outside, making it more of a chore to exercise, walk or even socialise outside and therefore our collective calories are left unburned.

  • Joe_Hoggs

    Peter and Iris clocked up food bills at the tax payers expense in the region of £144 per week during a four year parliamentary term.

  • Reader

    W[R]ite Noise: …the groups they are supposedly targeting.
    Well then, it depends on who you include in that list. I saw the item on TV last night, and so far as I can see the group could reasonably be defined as “everyone who could benefit from eating a bit less or thinking a bit more about what sort of junk they ate”.
    That’s a large group of people who stand to benefit, and a worthy target to aim at.
    Clearly there are people with more complex issues, but I don’t think that generally good advice should be withheld from a mass audience because of a minority of people who will pass it through a dodgy translator in their head. Isn’t there more specific stuff targeting vulnerable minorities every now and again anyway? I think there was something about anorexia on TV last week, wasn’t there?

  • Sergiogiorgio

    They are also tied up (read governed) by personal choice. If we continue to nanny fat, lazy people into the belief that the state will solve their choice to eat far too much and take no exercise, then don’t be surprised that we have an obesity epidemic. Everything is normalised now, everything is OK, because the state will legislate for you. Here’s a truism – eat less, exercise more, feel better. Its really that simple for the vast majority.

  • Old Mortality

    Surely the best place to start is the truism that obesity results from consuming more calories than are required for a given level of physical activity. One thing you can assert with great confidence is that the poor of 50 years ago walked, and possibly cycled, far more than their descendants. Nowadays, certainly in rural areas, a majority of the so-called poor own cars and, if they don’t, they make extensive use of taxis.
    A second factor is the worsening incapability of the underclass. Poor women in 1965 would have known how to cook but those skills have been lost over time. To cite a recent experience of my own, one young female benefit recipient had no idea that tea could be made in a pot rather than by dunking a bag in a cup.
    Consequently, there is a heavy dependence on take-away food which is demonstrated by the preponderance of outlets in ‘deprived’ areas. Clearly, there should be a stronger emphasis on domestic science (or whatever it’s called now) which would require every school leaver at 16 to be capable of purchasing and cooking the ingredients for a nutritional meal. Benefits should be withheld from anyone who has not fulfilled that requirement.
    In fairness, I would concede that in NI, obesity has become so commonplace, even among the middle and higher income groups, that there is no sense of shame do act as a deterrent. The incidence of obesity among NHS employees, for example, and tolerance of it, is nothing short of disgraceful.

  • Am Ghobsmacht

    Interesting point regarding the soap-opera-snacking.

    With regards to the weather:

    The weather is pretty dire in Northern Europe as a whole, cyclists have a saying in Norway “If it’s not raining, you’re in a tunnel…” and yet they don’t have the same problem.

    I used to travel via Amsterdam a lot.
    It’s bleak there in the winter too.
    Yet they all cycle and correspondingly they don’t have the same problem with obesity (I think).
    Australia on the other hand has tremendous weather yet is supposed to be one of the most obese nations in the world, same with Mexico.

  • Am Ghobsmacht

    Out of curiosity, what does yer average citizen consider to be ‘food’?

    I’m just wondering. Every time I go home to visit the parents I nearly starve for the first night as the only things to eat are crisps, biscuits, processed cheese and cheap bread.
    To me, those are occasional treats, not the stuff of an everyday diet.

    Then I see how much Coke/soda people consume! That stuff is metabolic-meddling disaster fluid!

    All right now and again if you’re active but to consider Coke/Irn Bru a staple of one’s diet is asking for trouble.

    I’m certainly not the picture of health (my diet is mainly cheese and schweinfleisch) but any time I’ve put on too much weight it’s been when I’ve been gorging on fast food or ‘factory’ food (or drinking too much…)

    Crisps, chocolate and soda drinks are cheap and plentiful and given a lot of space in supermarkets.

    It’s the path of least resistance and the results are now coming through.

  • Am Ghobsmacht

    BTW, where did Glasgow come in this survey? I’m shocked it wasn’t in the top 3.