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