Solving a major public policy challenge like Britain’s obesity epidemic can seem like an uphill struggle. But Health Psychologist Dr Linda Papadopoulos firmly believes it’s a fight Britain’s politicians can win – with the right approach. She speaks with PoliticsHome.
Britain is in the grip of an obesity epidemic so serious that NHS boss Simon Steven has branded it “the new smoking”. The latest data from the health service paints a stark picture: there were more than 617,000 obesity-related admissions in Britain’s hospitals last year alone, an 18% year-on-year rise which is putting a major strain on an already under-pressure NHS. Alarmed by the crisis, ministers have unveiled a pledge to halve childhood obesity by 2030, and there’s a growing awareness among policymakers that something must be done.
Health psychologist Dr Linda Papadopoulos has spent nearly two decades helping people build their self-esteem and develop a healthy body image – and she believes any efforts to tackle the crisis must start with a “careful and nuanced” conversation about the clear links between obesity and poor health. “We know that childhood obesity is associated with a higher chance of disability in adulthood,” Dr Linda, who is an expert adviser to weight management organisation Slimming World, tells Central Lobby. “We know that they’re more likely to develop non-communicable diseases like diabetes and cardiovascular disease at a young age. And we also know that overweight children who become overweight as adults as well are more likely to develop certain cancers. These are things that we’re learning about. So the data seems relatively clear.”
But Dr Papadopoulos is quick to challenge the narrative that “skinny people are healthy and big people are always unhealthy” – warning that this kind of “stigmatising” can render attempts to tackle obesity ineffective. “We can’t be intellectually dishonest, because I don’t think that helps anybody and I actually think that’s negligent,” she says. “But on the other hand I think it’s equally negligent to just have this kind of simplistic attitude that says to people ‘Just lose weight’. Because it’s not as simple as that.”
Instead, Dr Papadopoulos is a firm believer in a “biopsychosocial” view of weight loss, taking into account physical health, mental health and the places people find themselves living and working in when they become overweight. This kind of approach will, she says, be vital in tackling the rise in obesity. “Pointing out the problem is not enough,” she says. “There can be a sort of perfect storm that works together to get people to an unhealthy place. We need to look at biology, but also psychology and environment when we’re talking about getting to a healthier place. That means having good information out there that healthcare professionals can give people. But it also means ensuring that there’s a structure in place that means someone can maintain a healthy weight.”
She adds: ”If I give you a plan which means that you’re measuring cups and getting food that you’ve never heard of, and having to pre-plan for weeks on end that’s going to be really hard for you. If you’re going to be eating something that’s really different to your family, it’s going to be really hard for you. If everyone else around you doesn’t get it, that’s going to be really hard for you. But if we can make sure people work on the self-esteem aspect, which is often tied up with how eating makes us feel, we’ll put them in a much better place to get that success.”
Research shows that people who struggle with their weight often experience chronic issues of low confidence, poor self-esteem and even mental ill-health. NICE guidance for lifestyle weight management services recognises that being overweight or obese can have a serious effect on a person’s mental health as a result of the stigma, bullying and discrimination that often comes attached with being overweight. For Dr Papadopoulos, then, it’s vital that these “knock-on effects” are also understood – and that people are supported on all stages of their journey to better health.
“I think that policymakers and politicians – while there are some very willing to speak up – are reticent because what they don’t want to do is add to the problem,” she says. “What we need to do is start having a very-well informed, scientifically-informed discussion about what we know for sure. What do we know for sure that can help people? Because I don’t think it’s just about defining the problem – I think it’s also about coming up with solutions. Defining a problem is all well and good – but then what? Hopefully I think this is where we’re starting to get to now.”
In a bid to help policymakers navigate the complex and often sensitive issue of Britain’s obesity epidemic, Slimming World is holding a policy workshop and roundtable on the subject in the House of Commons later this month. Dr Papadopoulos is clear that she wants Britain’s legislators to leave the session with “a better understanding of what it means to be overweight, to understand the challenges overweight people face and recognise that it’s a kind of a double burden that they carry”.
“There’s the physiological burden of being heavy and what that means,” she says. “But then there’s the psycho-social burden of feeling somehow guilty or feeling ashamed and having to deal with the stigma. That guilt and shame and feeds into mental and cognitive health.
“For me as a psychologist, health is health, whether it’s about your heart or your mind. I think it’s ridiculous that we separate the mind and the body in the way that we do because we know that they’re very closely connected.
“The most important thing I’d like them to take away is that we’re not just talking about fitting into a little black dress here. We’re talking about having a sense of entitlement over your health and your wellbeing – giving people the power to be able to do this.
Dr Papadopoulos will be chairing a discussion on ‘Body Image: How being overweight impacts on self-esteem and mental health’ in parliament at Slimming World’s Roundtables & Reception on Wednesday 21st November 2018.
To register your interest in attending, please contact Diane Rolland by emailing [email protected] or call on 0207 593 5591