Leading article: Fat or thin, the problem is the same


Newspapers, including this one, have been gorging themselves on obesity for months. After the feast, the famine: we are back, this week, to the problems of being unhealthily underweight. There is no contradiction here. The figures might suggest obesity affects the health of more people in this country than anorexia. So it does, but it would be wrong to conclude public health policy should be directed to helping people be thinner. Most cases of extreme obesity and excessive weight loss are symptoms of the same problem - our obsessive attitude to food.

We are all well aware of the role of the media in amplifying people's anxieties about body shape. The controversy over size-0 and size-00 clothes is the most recent example. We report today on the problem of websites glorifying starvation and reinforcing the pressure felt by some young people to be thin. But censorship would not be the answer, even if it were possible on the internet, which health minister Rosie Winterton has discovered it is not. Nor is it the answer for conventional media: magazines cannot be ordered to use healthy models. On the contrary, what is needed is more information.

The same principle applies to the less acute end of the eating-disorder spectrum. It might be argued that the Jamie Oliver Effect on school lunches encourages parents to project anxieties about "healthy eating" on to children. There is an obvious danger in promoting the idea that we will become healthy simply by eating the "right" things, which overlooks exercise and lifestyle. But, again, the answer is more information, not less.

The more people understand that eating disorders are questions of mental health, not nutrition, the better. This newspaper has tried, through its mental health campaign, to promote awareness of some perhaps unexpected connections. We need, as a society, to understand the nature of compulsive-obsessive disorders better. Bulimia and comfort-eating are different symptoms of the same disorder. They are often characterised by secrecy and denial, for which eating together as a family may be part of the answer.

As ever, this newspaper argues that openness and information, rather than trying to dictate what people should do or think, is the way forward.

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