The voice in her head was always kind, conciliatory and persuasive: ‘You’ve had a hard day, you’ve played a lot of sport, you’ve earned a big meal,’ it said. Or: ‘You’ve have a good day, you’re hungry, this is your reward.’
It would follow up with a few compliments: ‘You’re not fat, you’re curvaceous. You’re healthy, you’re sporty. You’re vegetarian.’
Invariably, Amanda Overend would end up tucking into an enormous pizza or giant bowl of creamy pasta — and getting increasingly fatter.
Although never a binge eater, and also incredibly active, she had a big appetite and ate huge portions. Consequently, the weight crept on.
At her heaviest, the 41-year-old mother of three from Yorkshire weighed 14st 7lb, wore size 18 clothes, and was technically obese.
But, despite strong links between obesity and reduced life expectancy, heart disease, diabetes and 13 types of cancer — and more recently your risk of dying of Covid — no one said anything; not her friends, her colleagues or her husband. No one challenged her on what she was doing to herself, not even Amanda herself.
Amanda Overend (pictured before, left, and after, right), a 41-year-old mother of three from Yorkshire, weighed 14st 7lb, wore size 18 clothes, and was technically obese at her heaviest
‘The biggest shock was that not even my mother said anything, even though she’s always been fairly blunt about my appearance,’ says Amanda, who has sons aged ten, eight and six.
‘A colleague commented that my tummy rested on the desk, but I just thought it was office banter, and even though I often wore my husband’s tracksuit bottoms, as they were the only things that fitted me, it didn’t register.
‘Maybe they were worried about upsetting me. Everyone was always giving me compliments, telling me my hair looked nice or a colour suited me. No one — not even me — ever stated the obvious: that I was eating too much at meal times and getting dangerously fat.’
The reason could be that, worryingly, we are being coaxed into seeing being fat as no longer a problem. As a society, we’re increasingly wary of using the ‘F’ word, through fear of being branded a fat-shamer. Somewhere in our skewed society, fat has become fashionable.
Take size 24 American model Tess Holliday, who’s been glorified on the covers of glossy magazines. Her rhetoric is that it’s cool to eat junk food and to love your fat body.
There are various organisations stealing a march to normalise obesity and, alarmingly, Cancer Research UK was accused of ‘body shaming’ on social media, after launching an anti-obesity campaign.
Then the Royal College of Physicians called for obesity to be recognised as a disease — effectively sending the message that it’s not someone’s fault if they’re fat.
Lisa Jones (pictured on her wedding day, left, and now, right) remembers the day her mother delivered a painful home truth no one else had had the courage to say
Mental Health Minister Nadine Dorries fanned the flames further this week when she called obesity ‘an awful word’.
It’s treacherous territory given that official government figures reveal 26 per cent of adults in the UK are obese, with a body mass index (BMI) of 30 or more, and nearly a third of children aged two to 15 are overweight or obese. Even Ms Dorries admitted the nation’s bulging waistline was partly to blame for the UK’s huge coronavirus death toll.
While being slim doesn’t guarantee good health, a study by researchers at Imperial College London and the University of Cambridge measured the metabolic health of more than 17,000 respondents, and concluded that overweight people who exercise regularly and consider themselves ‘fat but fit’ still had a 28 per cent increased risk of heart disease, compared with slim people.
Jane Ogden, an expert in eating behaviours and professor of health psychology at the University of Surrey, says the suggestion obesity be classed as a disease is flawed.
‘I think what they’re trying to do is to remove blame and stigma,’ she says. ‘But people will end up feeling disempowered — victims of their biology — and will assume there’s nothing they can do. That’s no good for anyone.
‘As bigger clothes and wider seats become the norm, we risk more people becoming obese as we’re removing those prompts — not being able to fit into a dress or a seat on a plane — that tell us it’s time to address our weight.’
It was only when she saw a photo of herself that Amanda wised up. ‘I looked like a blob, so I registered for WeightWatchers straight away and lost more than 3st, which I’ve kept off,’ says Amanda, who now weighs 11st and is a dress size 12.
‘Technically, I was obese. I didn’t have an illness — it was entirely my fault. No one else’s.’
Lisa Jones, meanwhile, remembers the day her mother delivered a painful home truth no one else had had the courage to say.
‘Mum told me: “I’m concerned about your weight and that you’ll end up with the same health problems that blighted your Nanna and led to her early death,’ recalls Lisa. This most taboo of conversations took place in June 2009, shortly after Lisa had got married, weighing 17st and wearing a size 22 bridal gown.
HR manager Tracy Allen (pictured before her weight loss), 57, has spent the past 30 years in thrall to the obesity industry. Like Lisa, it was tough love that proved the turning point — in Tracy’s case it came from her husband, a retired civil servant
‘I’d been in denial for years about my weight,’ says Lisa, 38, a legal executive, who lives near Cardiff with her husband, a police sergeant, also 38, and their two children aged seven and four.
‘Mum seized the opportunity to voice her fears that I was going to end up like her own mother, who’d been overweight, had diabetes and a stroke in her 40s and died in her 50s.’
It marked a turning point for Lisa who, like millions of women, had been a yo-yo dieter, occasionally losing a few pounds only to pile them back on again.
‘I was entirely to blame for being fat,’ she says. ‘I had a lovely figure growing up and Mum provided healthy food at home. But by my 20s, whether I’d had a good or bad day, I’d turn to food, secretly eating large pizzas, chocolate bars and family-sized bags of crisps.
‘Going out was a palaver because I could never find anything to wear. I’d cry and throw things across the room. I’d ask my husband: “Do I look fat in this?” and he’d reply “You look beautiful” while friends always said I had a “pretty face”. ‘It’s not fine to be fat,’ says Lisa, who used £5,500 from her savings to have a gastric band fitted to give her a ‘kick start’.
She has since had the band loosened, has dropped from 17st to 10st and a dress size 22 to a 12 and says being healthy is now a habit.
But as the obesity problem grows, so, too, does the weight-loss market where there are rich pickings to be had.
After being knocked over and almost killed by a car in 2013, Tracy suffered a broken leg, needed two operations, became depressed and, already obese, ballooned from 17st to 19st and was a dress size 22. Pictured, Tracy after her weight loss
The UK diet industry is worth £2 billion a year, while the plus-size clothing market is valued at over £6.6 bn and has outperformed the overall clothing, footwear and accessories market since 2017.
HR manager Tracy Allen, 57, has spent the past 30 years in thrall to the obesity industry. Like Lisa, it was tough love that proved the turning point — in Tracy’s case it came from her husband, a retired civil servant.
After being knocked over and almost killed by a car in 2013, Tracy suffered a broken leg, needed two operations, became depressed and, already obese, ballooned from 17st to 19st and was a dress size 22.
‘You can’t be 19st and not be aware of it,’ says Tracy, a mother of two grown-up children, who lives in Norfolk and is now a size 14 after losing 7½st.
‘I had to haul myself upstairs on my bottom after my accident. I was a mess, mentally and physically.
‘Eventually, after years of keeping quiet for fear of upsetting me, my husband told me it was time to sort myself out because no one else could do it for me.
‘I’d wasted decades on diets that promised the earth, and even lost 6st once, consuming just three meal replacement shakes a day.
‘I’d feel great for a while. Then I’d give in to chocolate, creamy desserts and cakes and pile on weight.
‘I’d think: “I’m fat anyway, so if I eat this it won’t make any difference.”
‘I relied on wearing expensive make-up or a pretty top to “look good”, and friends would offer compliments such as “that blusher lights up your face”, or “how lovely — a new shirt”.
‘There’s a narrative at the moment that we should celebrate our bodies, whatever their shape, but all the cheerleading for obesity sends out a very dubious message. I’d never fat shame anyone, because I’ve been on the receiving end and it hurts. But after two years of being slimmer and more active, I just wish that other obese people could know how great it feels to be healthy.
‘Being vastly overweight affected my relationships and my work — I’m a highly qualified professional person but was perceived by some as being inadequate. When I used public transport, I’d catch people staring when I filled two seats.
Contracts manager Leanne Knowles, 34, decided to eschew diets and re-educate herself on healthy living after her partner admitted he was avoiding a sexual relationship with her because she was ‘too heavy’. Pictured before her weight loss, left, and now, right
‘I’m so grateful to my husband for his honesty.’
Susan Jebb is a professor of diet and health at Oxford University who believes classing obesity as a disease may perpetuate the problem.
‘If we start medicalising obesity, we’re putting pressure on the NHS to solve the problem, and it may make people feel less urgent because they imagine they just have to wait for a treatment to come along,’ says Professor Jebb.
‘The fact we’ve got three times more obesity in the UK now than 30 years ago is not due to a national collapse of willpower.
‘It’s the environment that’s changed. In terms of preventing obesity, the Government needs to take action on issues such as the naming, pricing and promotion of foods, reining in the excesses of the food industry.’
Contracts manager Leanne Knowles, 34, decided to eschew diets and re-educate herself on healthy living after her partner admitted he was avoiding a sexual relationship with her because she was ‘too heavy’.
‘I knew our relationship was over, but it was the catalyst for overhauling my unhealthy, sedentary lifestyle,’ says Leanne who lives near Beverley, East Yorkshire, with her son, 12.
‘I’d got into a rut. I didn’t exercise, I ate too much white bread, cakes and chocolates, and diets never worked because I didn’t live a healthy life.’
Fuelled by those comments from her now ex-partner, Leanne, who’s a petite 5ft 1in, booked a week at a GI Jane Bootcamp.
There, she was educated in health, nutrition and fitness, and left determined to change her life. She ended her relationship and ten months later had dropped from 12st 9lb and a size 16 to 8st 7lb and a size eight.
She carried on attending bootcamps, for a weekend or a week.
‘I call it my rehab,’ Leanne adds. ‘It’s not just about losing a few pounds — it’s about focusing on mental wellbeing, having more energy and feeling fitter.
‘Friends always told me I looked lovely, which is human nature because we don’t like to hurt people’s feelings. But looking back, I was overweight and unhealthy with no confidence or self worth.
‘I remember walking up the stairs being out of breath and my knees hurting, but not putting two and two together.
‘Now I have more energy and am able to lead an active life with my son, who loves playing tennis and football.’
What these stories illustrate is that, surely, whatever the outside influences, ultimately obese people do have to take responsibility for tackling their weight.
Professor Jebb adds: ‘Although those wider influences are incredibly important, at that final moment when you put food in your mouth, clearly there’s individual responsibility.
‘But research shows that the factors that lead to that point are generally more influential than we imagine.
‘Losing weight is really hard and people need support, which the NHS has not been good at offering, although it recently set out new long-term plans to improve this.
‘But calling obesity a disease could make the problem worse, because the connotation is that we’re waiting for a medical cure.
‘It disempowers people when, with the right support, evidence shows they can lose weight.’