BLOG Balancing needs: how do we mitigate the potential harms of weight interventions?

With 64% of the UK population now overweight or obese, there’s no time to lose in taking action to support the population to lose excess weight or maintain a healthy weight.

One way of supporting people to lose weight is to make it easier to understand how many calories are in the food they eat. Current food labelling can be unhelpful and confusing, presenting the public with a jumble of numbers that make it harder to establish healthier eating habits. One potential solution to this is to introduce Physical Activity Calorie Equivalent (PACE) labelling – where the calorie content is replaced with how long it would typically take to burn off the calories contained in the food by walking or running. This system distils the myriad figures down into a single, easy to compare number with a context that will be familiar to the vast majority of the public.

When we discuss this approach, and other weight interventions, there are a number of concerns that are frequently raised. One of the most common concerns is that PACE labelling could exacerbate existing eating disorders, causing unintended negative consequences for individuals living with eating disorders. This is an important concern, however the problem of eating disorders is dwarfed by the overwhelming problem of the obesity epidemic. In England, around 3% of people aged 16 years or more experience eating disorders, while nearly one-third of adults are living with obesity. The latest statistics reveal an alarming increase in the rates of childhood obesity, with over 14% of reception-aged children, and over 25% of year 6 children now obese, showing that the obesity epidemic is far from over.

There is no evidence to suggest that PACE labelling will result in an increase in eating disorders or an unhealthy relationship with food, and we do have evidence that shows that obesity prevention strategies in schools do not increase the risk of eating disorders. Trials comparing providing the public with PACE information and providing healthy eating leaflets did not find any differences in uncontrolled eating or emotional eating between the trial groups.

Nevertheless, the possibility that PACE labelling – or any other area of our research - could cause harm or unintended consequences, even in a few people, is an important consideration and should be further explored so we can balance the public’s diverse needs and provide the best support to help people lead happy, healthy lives. We work alongside researchers specialising in eating disorders and we welcome collaboration with experts in this area.

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