A maths exam asked students to count calories in a woman's meal. Here's why that's a problem.

[Original Post] Students were asked to calculate how many calories were in a banana and yoghurt. Image: Getty Images/PhotoAlto By Rachel Thompson2019-06-13 13:58:30 UTC Students in the UK were asked to calculate the calorific value of a woman’s breakfast of banana and yoghurt while sitting their GCSE maths exam last week.  The exam paper has […]

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[Original Post]
Students were asked to calculate how many calories were in a banana and yoghurt.

Image: Getty Images/PhotoAlto

Students in the UK were asked to calculate the calorific value of a woman’s breakfast of banana and yoghurt while sitting their GCSE maths exam last week. 

The exam paper has been subject to a lot of conversation online after students living with and recovering from eating disorders said the question triggered and panicked them. 

“There are 84 calories in 100g of banana. There are 87 calories in 100g of yogurt. Priti has 60g of banana and 150g of yogurt for breakfast. Work out the total number of calories in this breakfast,” read the question in the Edexcel GCSE maths paper. GCSEs are a set of compulsory examinations sat by 16-year-old students in the UK.

One student recovering from anorexia told the Telegraph she had to leave the exam hall because the question made her feel panicked. “I read the question and it bought back so many memories of counting calories, it put me into a panic where I had to leave the room for about five minutes and a teaching assistant calmed me down,” Isobel Colclough, 16, said.

“Then the teaching assistant persuaded me to go back into the room and I did manage to finish the exam but it stayed on my mind for quite a while after. For someone who has in the past been obsessed with counting calories, it definitely triggered memories of counting everything.”

Another student wrote on Twitter: “The weighing food and calorie question on the paper today triggered me so much. Hopefully it didn’t upset anyone else who suffers. It just brought back so many bad memories for me that I was about to cry.”

A subsequent review of the paper conducted by the exam board concluded that the question was “valid.” They added that students who feel their performance was impacted by the question should get in contact with them via their school. 

Hope Virgo, an eating disorder campaigner who developed anorexia when she was 12 years old, told Mashable the exam question “makes a mockery of eating disorders”. She explained the kind of impact a question about calories could have on someone living with an eating disorder. 

“When you are living with an eating disorder these types of questions are dangerous,” said Virgo. “Questions like this trigger so much emotion and so much thought that for someone struggling with food when reading that question it could take them to a dangerous place.”

Virgo said that the question would have made her panic and wonder if the woman in the question had eaten fewer calories than her that day, which would have led to her wondering if her portions are too big. 

“When you are living with an eating disorder these types of questions are dangerous.”

“If I had had this when I was at school when I was in the depths of my anorexia I would have wanted to leave the exam,” she said. “My mind would have started racing. 

“For me, that anorexic part of my brain would have kicked in distracting me, getting me to think about when I was next going to exercise, when I was next going to weigh my food or how I could skip a meal that evening. Becoming preoccupied with this in the middle of an exam isn’t right.”

Eating disorder charity Beat said in a statement that they want to encourage more awareness of how references to calorie counting can affect people living with eating disorders. 

“References to counting calories can be triggering for people with or in recovery from an eating disorder and can therefore cause significant distress,” said Beat’s Director of External Affairs Tom Quinn. “Given that young people are most at risk of these serious mental illnesses, we would encourage exam boards to avoid such material in their exams.”

“In an age where we talk about mental health so openly and the impacts on others we need to start having exam boards taking some responsibility for this and realise that an already stressful time could be made a lot worse for someone who is struggling with food simply by reading this question,” said Virgo.

If you’re living with an eating disorder and want to speak to someone, call the Beat Adult Helpline (UK) on 0808 801 0677. If you’re under 18, call Beat’s Youthline on 0808 801 0711. If you’re in the US, you can contact the National Eating Disorder Association (NEDA) helpline on (800) 931-2237.

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