MPs have urged Ministers to scrap the BMI scale and rethink the Government’s obesity strategy in a bid to tackle eating disorders that have been made worse in lockdown.
As gyms and beauty salons prepare to open on Monday, a report by Parliament’s Women and Equalities Committee found lockdown had had a “devastating” impact on those with eating disorders.
And they warned the Governments’ current obesity strategy was “dangerous” for people suffering from negative body image, and could potentially trigger eating disorders in the people it is designed to help.
They recommended Public Health England immediately stop using the Body Mass Index (BMI) in determining if an individual’s weight is healthy and replace it with a “Health at every size” approach, which prioritises healthy lifestyle choices over correcting weight.
BMI is used as a health risk indicator in individual patients who are then put on weight loss or weight gain programmes prompted by their score,
But the committee argued it contributes to issues such as eating disorders and poor mental health.
The Committee also recommended ‘photoshopped’ images be restricted or banned from advertising.
“We have been hugely saddened to hear of the number of people who have faced appearance and weight-based discrimination when accessing NHS services,” the report said.
“The use of BMI inspires weight stigma, contributes to eating disorders, and disrupts people’s body image and mental health.”
The “Health at every size” approach honours differences in factors such as age, ethnicity and gender, and prioritises healthy lifestyle choices over correcting weight, according to the report.
On the obesity strategy, the committee said that it was “at best ineffective and at worst perpetuating unhealthy behaviours” and called for the Government to commission an independent review into the evidence base for its policies.
It also urged the Government to immediately scrap plans for calorie labels on food in restaurants, cafes and takeaways, amid concerns it will contribute to growth in eating disorders and disordered eating.
“The use of BMI as a measure of healthy weight has become a kind of proxy or justification for weight shaming. This has to stop,” Committee Chair Caroline Nokes said.
“Over the past 10 years, there has been a wealth of research and recommendations on how to tackle negative body image but Government action in this area is limited – we need to see urgent action.
The pressure will intensify as gyms and beauty salons reopen on Monday.
“This may be exciting for some but it will be difficult for people who experience body image anxieties. It’s critical that Government action works towards improving body image.”
A Department of Health and Social Care spokesperson said: “We know poor body image can be a factor in disordered eating for both men and women and we are committed to improving outcomes for those with eating disorders and related mental health issues – with record funding to expand dedicated services in the community.
“Early intervention services are being launched for young people with eating disorders which could see them begin treatment within two weeks.
“With over 6 in 10 adults overweight or living with obesity it is important that we take action to help people live healthier lives, and our approach is guided by the latest research and emerging evidence. NHS England has been clear it does not support the use of BMI thresholds.”