The use of body mass index to determine individual health ‘should be scrapped immediately’, MPs have said.
A report from the Women and Equalities Committee, published last week, warned the Government’s approach to eating disorders and poor body image could be ‘potentially harmful’, and called for an urgent independent review of its obesity strategy.
They also said healthcare professionals should stop using body mass index (BMI) – which they said was originally introduced to measure entire populations – to measure an individual’s health as it can lead to weight stigma, eating disorders and mental health problems.
The report recommended that Public Health England instead adopt a ‘Health at Every Size’ approach – which prioritises health lifestyle choices over correcting weight – within 12 months.
Senior research fellow in psychiatry at University College of London Dr Francesca Solmi told the committee that BMI is a ‘very poor proxy of health’ and ‘can be misguided as two people with the same BMI can have very different physical and mental health’.
The report also warned the Government’s obesity strategy, introduced in July last year, failed to ‘promote healthy behaviours’ and could be ‘contributing to body-image pressures’.
The obesity strategy included measures such as public health campaigns around obesity, calorie content being displayed on menus, and restrictions to promotions and advertisements of foods high in fat, sugar and salt such as ‘buy one get one free offers’ and adverts after 9pm.
But the committee called for calorie labels on foods should be scrapped and more diverse and representative images of people in advertising.
They also said the National Child Measurement Programme – which collects data on the height and weight of children – must be reviewed to ‘ensure it is not creating undue body image pressures’.
The report found that lockdown had a ‘devastating’ impact on those with or at high risk of developing eating disorders and intensified body image anxieties.
Nursing in Practice’s in-depth piece on how Covid lockdowns have affected children’s mental health, published last month, highlighted there was a growing issue of eating disorders among young people.
Committee chair Caroline Nokes said: ‘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.’
She continued: ‘We are particularly alarmed by the rise in eating disorders and concerned that the obesity strategy and data collection of obesity levels in kids make things worse by failing to promote healthy behaviours.
‘Advertising and social media can cause negative body image if users are bombarded by ads which lack diverse representation. It’s paramount that people are protected from viewing consistently pressurising content online and that companies advertise their products responsibly.
‘The Government must ensure its policies are not contributing to body image pressures,’ she added.
The report echoes a ‘mythbuster’ written by nutrition consultant Mel Wakeman for Nursing in Practice in December last year, saying the Government’s consistent message you will suffer less with Covid-19 if you lose weight could do more harm than good.