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The Guardian - UK
The Guardian - UK
Dorothy Dunn

Food insecurity and eating disorders are linked and rising. Where’s the plan to tackle them?

Tins of food on shelves at a food bank in Wakefield.
‘Becoming aware of food as a precarious resource can increase anxiety when consuming it, which can also increase the risk of binge eating.’ A food bank in Wakefield. Photograph: Horst Friedrichs/Alamy

The first thing that came to mind when reading the obituaries of Milan Kundera, the author of The Unbearable Lightness of Being, was not the man, but the title of his book. The unbearable lightness of being could be an apt way to describe the precarious nature of many people’s lives across the UK right now: unbearable, treated lightly by those in positions of power, but ultimately still being in the world, if hanging on only by a thread.

Food insecurity has now been linked by the NHS to the rise in eating disorders, and this is interesting for two primary reasons. First, the new research overturns commonly held stereotypes. It had long been assumed that this illness affected affluent, white, middle-class women and girls. The new findings prove this is not the case, with the rise occurring in people from low socioeconomic backgrounds, who are disproportionately black and from ethnic minorities. This is striking, and will no doubt have a profound effect on the way we diagnose and treat eating disorders in the future.

Second, it confirms the extent to which food insecurity is having a deep and long-lasting effect on mental and physical health in and of itself. The Food Foundation defines food insecurity as being unable to reliably access sufficient, affordable and nutritious food. According to its latest statistics, 17.7% of households experienced food insecurity at the start of this year, with most cutting back on fresh produce from their grocery list.

Not having access to consistent, nutritious meals can lead to cognitive, behavioural and emotional changes in the brain. Becoming aware of food as a precarious resource can increase anxiety when consuming it. This anxiety around food can also increase the risk of binge eating once food is available, and is a likely contributing factor to a rise in the numbers of people diagnosed with bulimia.

This is profoundly sad but also not very surprising. The increasing rate of food insecurity is largely being driven by the cost of living crisis, which encompasses high inflation, a rise in energy bills and a real-terms pay cut for many, alongside a reduction in the value of benefits (of 10%, according to the latest figures.)

Is it any wonder that the poorer the economic state of our nation and public services, the poorer the nation’s health? Anorexia has the highest mortality rate of mental illnesses, and is most likely to have lasting physical implications. Recent news of Britons’ shrinking height and worsening dental health, alongside lower life expectancy, highlights the very physical implications that political decisions are now having on the nation.

Eating disorders, once diagnosed, do not respond to quick-fix solutions, but require long-term care with a multidisciplinary approach. Less than half of people diagnosed with an eating disorder fully recover, which leaves more than 50% potentially needing some form of support or care for the rest of their lives, which are often greatly reduced by the illness.

Policies to tackle food insecurity are being discussed, but they do not go far enough. This is not a temporary issue. The government has a duty to implement policies that support those most at risk and to address the root causes.

The Food Foundation is calling for major changes, urging implementation of free school meals for all children on universal credit, wages and benefits in line with inflation, and policies to deal with food pricing. Even these may not be sufficient to deal with the mental health complexities that arise from having an eating disorder, but it is certainly a start.

Salman Rushdie, remembering Milan Kundera this week, said that within the concept of the “lightness of being” is a truth that “life allows us no revisions or second drafts”. The government must take heed when thinking about the implications of its current approach to food inequality and, by implication, eating disorders. It needs a robust, well funded and compassionate plan. We do not have one. There are no second chances when someone’s life is at stake.

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