The programme aired on a Monday night: a “harmless” experiment, in which participants were invited to eat a slap-up meal for free and gorge themselves on decadent dishes. Unbeknownst to them, there was an onsite gym at the restaurant they were eating in, where a team of exercise nuts stood waiting to work off every calorie consumed on their behalf. The diners were shown this strange hall of penance only after they’d eaten their meal, told how much exercise had been needed to work off their lunch, and asked to ponder whether it had been “worth” it.
Such programmes – ones that tell us how to lose weight and why we should – are a staple of British television. We’re a nation in which two-thirds of the population are categorised as overweight or obese; meanwhile, 38 per cent of people say they are actively on a diet “most of the time”, according to a 2019 study conducted by Kantar, up nearly 10 per cent compared to a decade ago.
But the timing of this one – BBC Two’s The Restaurant That Burns Off Calories – didn’t sit well with its critics. It was aired, after all, smack bang in the middle of an unprecedented pandemic and subsequent lockdown – the biggest challenge post-war Britain has ever faced.
“If you’ve ever struggled with disordered eating, felt s*** about your body or had other anxieties around food/exercise, please spare yourself the hurt and stress of watching the BBC Horizon show tonight,” tweeted former Bake Off contestant and writer Ruby Tandoh, whose book Eat Up! denounces fad diets and calorie counting in favour of a joyful, healthy relationship with food.
“It horrifies me that the BBC would think this is remotely responsible programming at any time, let alone now. It is SO well established by now that this kind of focus on numbers (minutes exercised, calories in, calories out) feeds into disordered eating. We deserve better.”
A BBC spokesperson said the intention of the programme “was to give viewers information about the latest research into the science of calories, about why our bodies need them and how our bodies use them.”
They added: “The voiceover is clear throughout that there are government guidelines for the recommended number of calories needed for the average man or woman to remain healthy (2,500 for men and 2,000 for women). The programme never endorses or suggests restricting calories below these levels.”
However, many on social media applauded Ms Tandoh’s warning, admitting they were already struggling with their eating habits under the pressure of significant lifestyle upheavals following the Covid-19 outbreak. One of these was freelance journalist Moya Lothian-McLean, 25, who has battled exercise addiction and orthorexia – a condition in which the sufferer is preoccupied with only eating “healthy” foods – in the past.
“It’s so funny how quickly my brain has gone into panic mode,” she says. “As soon as I found out the gyms had closed, I felt really stressed out. I wanted to go so bad – two days before lockdown I went for the last time and I didn’t tell my friends because I felt so ashamed. It was already a questionable activity at that stage; I felt bad because I was one of those ‘idiots’ people were complaining about.”
I’m flailing around, desperately trying not to slide backwards, but it’s really hard
Things only got harder as Moya’s routine was further disrupted – her choice to self-isolate at her boyfriend’s place meant leaving behind her home weights, while shared cooking and eating with his housemates posed its own daily challenge. “I feel like I’ve lost control of my eating,” she admits. “I’m flailing around, desperately trying not to slide backwards, but it’s really hard.”
For someone who struggles with exercise addiction, seeing the nation’s newfound fitness craze under lockdown has also proved triggering. “People seem obsessed with exercise right now,” says Moya. “Everyone’s running, jogging, doing HIIT classes in the park. It’s very difficult being someone who is obsessed with exercise in a negative way, because everything is reminding me that I should be doing it.”
Kerrie Jones, the clinical director and co-founder of eating disorder clinic Orri, agrees that the current media pressure to “transform yourself” during lockdown can “be incredibly difficult for someone with an eating disorder to avoid. For some, these messages can amplify the internal dialogue and make the struggle with poor body image and a difficult relationship with food even harder.”
Different personalities will, of course, handle lockdown differently, Deanne Jade, the director of the National Centre for Eating Disorders (NCFED), tells The Independent. While, for some, lockdown has actually been helpful in terms of their eating disorder – “there’s less stress, there’s less pressure, they can’t necessarily get to the shops easily to buy binge food” – for others, the disruption to their carefully planned routine, lack of access to social networks and increased anxiety means they’re “doing very badly.”
“They feel disconnected, frightened and out of control,” she says. “They can’t necessarily see their therapist. When you’re on your own, it’s hard to distract yourself from negative thoughts about yourself.” Claire Mysko, CEO of the National Eating Disorder Association (NEDA) in the US, agrees that “eating disorders thrive in isolation” – calls to NEDA’s helpline rocketed by 73 per cent in March compared to the same period last year.
For those who feel like the pandemic is causing them to lapse into bad patterns of behaviour, the most important thing to do is ask for help, according to the experts. “I would tell anyone struggling to seek help,” says Ms Jade. “There are organisations who have a helpline, which is a good place to start for getting short-term support. No one is going to force you to make an everlasting commitment to therapy. But talking to someone who understands your eating issues, who can provide short-term tailored guidance on how to look after yourself, can be vital.”
Ms Mysko adds that there are still many ways for the eating disorders community to stay in touch with treatment and mental health professionals, such as virtual or over-the-phone sessions. Communication is key, too, according to Ms Jones, whether it’s with a treatment team or supportive loved ones and friends “who can hold you accountable to your journey”.
“Reach out to those special people in your life who reinforce positive, recovery-focused behaviours and let them know you may need additional support,” she suggests. If you are one of those loved ones, supporting a friend or family member who is struggling with disordered eating from afar can be especially tough. For them, Ms Jones advises modelling “normal” behaviour and attitudes around eating and food, and focusing on emotions and underlying feelings when checking in, rather than the eating disorder itself.
“Listen, so that they feel heard, and make a mental note to follow up with them in the future,” she says. “Signpost to additional, specialist support – remember that it is not your responsibility to ‘fix’ someone and it’s important to keep boundaries to ensure you have time to look after yourself, too.”
Don’t beat yourself up if you fail. And remember you’re not alone in this
For Moya, stopping and taking stock is the most effective strategy she’s found. “I pause when lacing up my trainers – I think to myself, ‘you don’t have to do this, you’ll be fine if you don’t’. It’s like a mantra. I try to do things that scare me, too, like eating pasta. It makes me realise the sky won’t fall in if I do.”
But possibly the most important thing is to be kind to yourself. “If things are really tough right now, it doesn’t mean that you are failing, it simply means you’re being really, really challenged right now and your commitment to getting through this uncertain time is testament to your resilience and courage,” says Ms Jones.
Moya puts it simply: “Don’t beat yourself up if you fail. And remember you’re not alone in this. Everyone has the same s****y things to go through.”
For anyone struggling with the issues raised in this piece, eating disorder charity Beat’s helpline is available 365 days a year on 0808 801 0677.
NCFED offers information, resources and counselling for those suffering from eating disorders, as well as their support networks. Visit eating-disorders.org.uk or call 0845 838 2040.