By Hope Virgo
Watching the BBC’s The Restaurant That Burns Off Calories last night, my brain immediately went into overdrive. There was a mixture of fear and anger, then that familiar, anorexic part of my brain kicking in – the one that would thrive off this kind of “information” – how to burn off the food that I put in my body in the most efficient way. It’s a part of my brain that can suck me in to a dark and critical headspace and supposedly help me feel in control and valued, particularly during this time of global turmoil.
I’ve been in recovery for anorexia for more than 11 years, and I now know my triggers well. I was able to shut that thinking down pretty much straight away and reassure myself, reaching out to others for support.
But for the 1.6 million people who are diagnosed with an eating disorder in the UK, and for the millions of others who have disordered relationships with food or exercise, the program would be extremely triggering. And, in fact, I would go so far as to say that for every single person in society, this program’s messaging is completely inappropriate.
Exercise isn’t about punishing ourselves and it isn’t just about burning off food, it is so much more than that.
What were the producers thinking suggesting that we need to earn our food (and then burn it off!)? Everyone’s bodies are completely different and we all need different amounts of food.
This kind of oversimplified messaging around eating and exercise shouldn’t happen ever but especially not during lockdown – a time when so many are struggling with a need for control, and heightened emotions, and lacking their usual support networks.
The program argues that there is science behind what they are saying, research showing that people eat less if they know how long it will take to burn something off.
This might seem pretty harmless (and probably pretty obvious), but what it fails to do is to educate us how to regulate our eating and exercise in a healthy and balanced way. Instead, it scaremongers, creating unhealthy messaging around calories, and exercise. It creates a “one size fits all” model, which fails to actually take into account individual differences. Crucially, it also fails to explain that if we burn off everything we eat, then a person will die.
Secondly, exercise isn’t about punishing ourselves. It isn’t just about burning off food, it is so much more than that. When I developed anorexia, exercise became a huge part of my illness. It was something that I had to do all the time to keep that nasty, critical, anorexic voice in my head at bay. If I wasn’t doing enough I was left with a sense of guilt, and failure. It ridiculed me each day, pushing me to my limits.
Exercise done in the right way can be really healthy and helpful for those in recovery, but these shows perpetuate a dangerous message about punishing our bodies.
As I reflect on last night’s show, I can’t help but feel angry and sad that a national TV channel was able to broadcast such dangerous messages.
This morning, I woke up and put on my running stuff even though my body was aching. It took every ounce of courage not to push myself to go out for that run. The guilt set in almost immediately when I decided not to go, when I knew I needed to rest. The reality is, making this decision was hard today. Even 11 years on, some days feel harder than others. It is these shows and a society that pushes messaging about earning food and burning calories that causes this guilt. It causes the eating disorder to create these rules in our heads.
So if you watched the program, please remember a few things. Exercise and food are something to be enjoyed not earned. But if you are struggling, talking really helps. Please reach out for support. Living a life where food and exercise doesn’t dominate your thinking may seem like a world away, but it’s possible for all of us.
Hope Virgo is a mental health campaigner and author.
- Mind’s website has a range of information and tips to boost physical and mental wellbeing. Their helpline is open Monday to Friday, 9am-6pm on 0300 123 3393.
- YoungMinds (which supports people under 25) provides a free 24/7 crisis text messenger service. If someone is in mental health crisis, they can text YM to 85258 for support.
- Samaritans offers a listening service which is open 24 hours a day, on 116 123 (UK and ROI – this number is FREE to call and will not appear on your phone bill.)
- The Mix is a free support service for people under 25. Call 0808 808 4994 or email: [email protected]
- Rethink Mental Illness offers practical help through its advice line which can be reached on 0300 5000 927 (open Monday to Friday 10am-4pm). More info can be found on www.rethink.org
- Sane can provide support through its website. The charity has a messaging system in place with trained professionals.