The Great British Bake Off is a quintessential part of British culture. Every year, we watch on the edge of our seats as contestants whisk, roll and, well, bake until a winner is crowned. And you might get a few exciting mishaps, dramatic moments and much-coveted Paul Hollywood handshakes along the way.
People adore the Great British Bake Off (seriously, they pull in an average of 5.7 million viewers) because it’s so wholesome. It’s a show about sponge cakes, ginger biscuits and friendly competition - what’s not to love?
Maybe, all the talk of calories.
GBBO judge Prue Leith - who replaced Mary Berry in 2017 - recently came under fire for her comments about calories after she said bakes were ‘worth the calories’ in a recent episode.
The problem with the comment, is it positions calories as the enemy or something to be earned, perpetuating damaging diet culture ideas. Leith also ate a biscuit in the show, and said it was "the most fattening bite you can imagine".
It’s unfortunately nothing new, though. Leith has followed a prolonged sip off a spoon or chew on a slice of cake with “so worth the calories’ so much, it’s become a catchphrase. At this point, it’s her thing, like Noel’s exquisitely camp wardrobe or Paul’s devastating glare.
But it seems viewers are becoming tired of the calorie comments. Many want Leith to see how damaging these comments can be and stop repeating them, and believe Channel Four have a responsibility to edit them out.
One upset viewer tweeted a response to Leith’s comments on calories and weight gain, posting ‘‘This is about as fattening a mouthful as you can get” and “Worth every calorie” - comments like this by Prue Leith really need to be edited out of every episode of #GBBO @Channel4’
Another pointed out the absurdity of including language like this in a show that revolves around cake, biscuits and pastry. ‘Prue, maybe don’t host a baking show if you’re going to be so obsessed with calories and things being fattening. Not a good message.’ Another seemed to agree, writing ‘I'm so tired of diet culture phrases being uttered on a show that is about cake. If I hear the words 'but is it worth the calories?' again, I swear’
One Twitter user highlighted how speaking about food in this way takes the fun away from baking, which is - after all - what GBBO is supposed to be about. ‘I wish Prue would behave, talking about how the bakes are “worth the calories”. Your job is to eat treats. How on earth are you making it joyless!!! it’s making me sad,’ she posted.
Some viewers are unbothered by the calorie talk. One Twitter user wrote ‘Y'all actually thinking you have a right to petition that Prue not mention the word "calorie" is hilarious. She can say whatever she wants. You can absolutely stop watching if you find her word choice damaging to your sense of worth or safety. Don't take it out on her.’
Calories - and the obsession around counting, tracking and labelling them - have been a source of contention for some time. Research from Harvard shows that counting calories does very little to support a person’s health - and could even hinder it. They note “even careful calorie calculations don't always yield uniform results. How your body burns calories depends on a number of factors, including the type of food you eat, your body's metabolism, and even the type of organisms living in your gut.”
They explain that a person can eat the exact same number of calories as someone else, yet have very different outcomes when it comes to the number on the scale.
Yet, our country is still obsessed with counting calories. Calorie tracking apps like My Fitness Pal are practically as commonplace on our phones as the calculator app, and last year the UK government proposed a bill that would mean all food providers must print calorie numbers next to food items on menus (thankfully, this bill was stopped).
Our obsession with calories means we push food into ‘good’ and ‘bad’ boxes depending on their numbers - to our detriment. So, it’s no surprise that an estimated 1.25 million people in the UK have an eating disorder, while the British diet industry is worth approximately 2 billion.
For people who struggle with eating disorders, this is a bit more than just annoying. One person took to Twitter to complain about the language in the programme and how it affects her struggles with eating disorders, writing “I spent a long time with an eating disorder & think C4 should cut it out - it adds nothing to the show and could be potentially triggering to a lot of people as well as perpetuating unhealthy ideas about food having inherent moral value.”
But it’s not only difficult for viewers of the programme, but this kind of ‘guilt language’ around food could be problematic for the show’s contestants too.
Great British Bake Off runner up Steph Blackwell talked openly about her mental health and disordered eating history just last year. Speaking on a Times Radio segment, she said ‘I became quite depressed initially and lost a lot of weight and then food did become a controlling factor. I guess that does come into play when you’re anxious because you would do anything to make life feel a little more structured.’
‘I felt like I might die,’ she added, speaking on the reality of living with an eating disorder.
Eating disorder charity Beat have since spoken out on the show's messaging around calories too. They highlight the connection calorie counting has to disordered eating, and the responsibility GBBO has to ensure content is safe for all viewers.
Tom Quinn, the Director of External Affairs at Beat, said Channel 4 would be wise to rethink the programme's approach to diet culture while speaking to the Daily Mail.
‘Mentions of calories can be triggering to people with or vulnerable to an eating disorder,’ he added.
‘We know from the people we support that equating food with 'good' or 'bad' moral connotations can lead to feelings of guilt and shame, and can even encourage eating disorder behaviours, and so talk of food being 'worth the calories' is very unhelpful.’
Quinn added, ‘We estimate that 1.25 million people in the UK currently have an eating disorder, but due to the stigma that still surrounds these serious mental illnesses, this number may be even higher.’
‘We would strongly encourage Channel 4 to be conscious about the way food and exercise is discussed, for instance not mentioning calories or specific weights, in order to protect their audience.’
Considering the recent body positivity movement, how much we’ve worked on ourselves collectively to reduce shame around food, and the sheer volume of viewers GBBO has - perhaps it's time for Leith to find a new, more empowering catchphrase? ‘This is a cracking tasting cake,’ is my vote, personally.