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Fears government health app could ‘encourage eating disorder behaviours’

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An eating disorder charity is urging the government to consider the impact its new health app will have on people with eating disorders.

A pilot scheme that will require users to don wrist-worn devices that can generate personalised health recommendations, such as increasing their step count, eating more fruit and vegetables and decreasing portions, will launch next year.

Users will collect points for these healthy behaviours in an app that will unlock rewards, such as gym passes, clothes or food vouchers and discounts for shops, cinema or theme park tickets.

Health bosses say the app, which will be available from  January 2022, will help people make positive changes to their diet and physical activity.

However, Tom Quinn, director of external affairs at eating disorder charity Beat, said it may encourage users to engage in harmful eating disorder behaviours, such as overexercising or restricting their food intake.

‘We are concerned that the government’s new health app could have a negative impact on people with or vulnerable to eating disorders.

“While we recognise the importance of reducing obesity, incentivising people to change their diet or exercise habits with financial rewards could encourage people to engage in harmful eating disorder behaviours, such as overexercising or restricting their food intake.

“We also know from the people we support that eating disorders can be very competitive, and so people who are currently unwell may be at particular risk from the scheme.

“Eating disorders are serious and complex mental illnesses that affect around 1.25m people in the UK each year.

“As part of the review of the pilot scheme, we would urge the government to consider the impact on people with eating disorders and ensure that their mental health is not being harmed.”

Health bosses said the scheme will be part of the Office for Health Improvement and Disparities’ (OHID) drive to use digital technology to improve physical health and prevent health conditions before they develop.

HeadUp Systems has been chosen to deliver the new scheme, with £3m also coming from the Department of Health and Social Care to provide incentives. Sir Keith Mills, who launched reward programmes through Airmiles and Nectar points, will also advise the OHID.

The pilot will launch in January 2022 and will run for six months in a defined location in England to be announced in due course.

A Department of Health and Social Care spokesperson said: “We are developing the health incentives pilot scheme in a way that helps people make positive changes to their diet and physical activity, but does not impact those suffering from or recovering from an eating disorder. It will support people to make healthy choices and level up health disparities across the country.

“We understand the devastating impact eating disorders can have and we are expanding and transforming mental health services in England with an additional £2.3bn a year by 2023/24. This is on top of our £500m Mental Health Recovery Action Plan to help people with a variety of mental health conditions.”

If you’re worried about your own or someone else’s health, you can contact Beat 365 days a year on 0808 801 0677 or via beateatingdisorders.org.uk.

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