Sarah Le Brocq is Director of Obesity UK, a charity dedicated to supporting people living with obesity. For World Obesity Day 2020, she spoke to Johnson and Johnson Medical Devices Companies UK & Ireland about her own struggle with weight, and how that has instilled a passion to help others and defeat stigma.
Can you tell us about your own personal relationship with obesity?
I struggled with my weight for as long as I can remember. Being at school, feeling like I was different to everyone else. And when I look at photos now, I realise the reason I was different is that I developed physically at quite a young age. I went to an All Girls’ School and lots of my friends were late developing and still had quite childlike bodies.
Because I felt different, I started to dislike my body, because I wasn’t the same as everyone else.
From there, I started going on stupid diets and trying different eating behaviours, because I wanted to change my body, and I think that’s where it started for me.
I remember between my GCSEs and A-levels, I did one of those very low-calorie milkshake diets, which is where I started with my yo-yo dieting. Then it just went from there… losing weight, putting it back on; losing weight, putting it back on. And then over time, it got to a point where I would say I was living with obesity. It’s been a battle since then really.
What led you from being a person struggling with her own weight, to one who wanted to make a difference for others, and to society’s perception of obesity?
I became passionate about getting people to understand that obesity isn’t just about “eating less” and “moving more”.
I went on a TV programme, where I lost a significant amount of weight – I lost 8-and-a-half stone (54kg) – I did a lot of diet and exercise, and I trained really hard. In fact, I completed an Olympic-distance triathlon.
I continued to train hard and was eating well, but I noticed that my weight was coming back on. It made me feel like a complete failure and I thought, “What is going on? I just can’t do this”
All sorts of negative thoughts came into my head. But then I realised that there must be something more to this than simply eating the wrong things, or not training hard enough. Because, I was training 3 or 4 times a week with a personal trainer; high-intensity exercise, but the weight was coming back on.
So, this must have been the moment of realisation for you, that obesity was more complicated?
I began exploring things a little bit more, reading more about the science of obesity. I have a science background, so I suppose I like to think about the science behind things. I was particularly interested in the Dr Kevin Hall trial, which looked at contestants from the television programme, “The Biggest Loser”. Over six years, most of the contestants who lost weight had put it back on.
It started making sense – it was like a light bulb went on. This isn’t just my fault. I remember that day so well because it was a sigh of relief in a way. Because I’d been punishing myself and blaming myself for such a long time.
It’s from then that I’ve started to get involved with Obesity UK. I really want to drive that message so that people with obesity don’t feel like I did - and don’t continue to blame themselves. Yes, there are things you can control. But when the genetics are against you, it’s hard to completely control your life and I’m passionate about getting the message about these complexities out there.
It’s a bit cheesy, but not that long ago we thought the world was flat. I think when we look back in 10, 20 years’ time at the way we’ve treated people living through obesity, we’ll be horrified. We need to treat people with respect. We need to get rid of weight stigma and class it as discrimination. I’m passionate about trying to make those changes.
Why do people struggle to understand the complexities to obesity?
Society has drilled it into us for such a long time that the only answer to weight problems is: “eat less, move more”. I can understand why society thinks that. I can understand to some extent why personal trainers think that. I’ve come across many intelligent people who think that. And I can understand it. If you look at the science, you might think that’s right: if you eat more than you use then clearly, you’re going to put weight back on.
But what they don’t take into consideration are the other complex factors. And if we look at the 2007 Foresight Report, it shows that there are more than 100 different reasons why someone lives with obesity. Diet and exercise are just two out of 100. So why do we just focus on them? When there’s also genetics, physiological impacts, the environment we live in. Over simplifying something that is really complex is a bizarre thing to do.
When you start to show people the facts, the penny starts to drop. But there is a huge challenge to change the mindset that has been drilled into us for such a long time. I think that the government and society in general needs to play a big part in changing the narrative on this. We need to change the way people are treated within the healthcare system and be more open to things like pharmaceutical or surgical solutions that have been shown to work. I think the more we talk about it, the more this will slowly start changing.
What is your advice for someone living with obesity?
You need to realise this isn’t just your fault. Because if we spend our lives hating ourselves and battling with ourselves then we’re not going to get anywhere. You must reframe your life in some ways. I always went to the gym to lose weight. But now I go to the gym to get healthier, to get fitter. If you change why you’re there, it will make you feel better. Stop focusing on weight loss, and just focus on being a healthier version of you. Whether that means being able to walk a bit further, lift a heavier weight or swim out a little bit further. Focus on that rather than what the scales say. Because ultimately, I’ve lost weight over-and-over-again and it hasn’t made me any healthier or fitter.
What would you like to see changed in society in respect of obesity?
There wouldn’t be this judgement. We live in this world, which is driven by Instagram and “body beautiful” and if you don’t look a certain way you’re not accepted. I would hope there would be more acceptance of people no matter what size they are, no matter what they look like. With race, gender, sexuality – all of this has changed over the last ten, fifteen years. I would hope the same does with regards to the way someone looks. Because at the moment, you walk into a room and are judged for the way that you look, and that needs to stop. It would be nice to have that taken a way and to feel like you are an equal person with anyone else in that room.