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Fat and global warming

When I first read this article I had an odd sense of déjà vu. Then I realized why: it's not a new story! Not only that, but every time this subject has come up, the same people seem to be behind it. Ian Roberts wrote the original diatribe in 2007, he and Dr. Phil Edwards wrote a letter to the Lancet in 2008 with the same message, and now they've published a study along these same lines. The thing is, all of their research is based on the same faulty assumptions: that fat people consume more energy by eating and driving more. Even this new "study" draws conclusions based on these assumptions. For instance:

Since it can be assumed that energy expenditure is approximately balanced by energy intake, it follows that total food energy consumption increases as BMI increases.

So, we're going to assume that each step up the BMI ladder means more food consumption? There have been studies to refute this, but even if you disregard them and assume that I, with a BMI of 60+ eat THREE TIMES THE VOLUME OF FOOD as a person with a BMI of 20, what about the one in four people in the UK who are on a constant diet? What about the 45 million Americans who go on diets each year? Some of those folks must be fat, yes? So right there you can see it's ridiculous to assume that every fat person eats more than someone with a lower BMI. If it were true, the diet industry would crumble.

To estimate the GHG emissions due to car travel by each population, we assumed that all individuals with BMI < 30 kg/m2 use an average small car (e.g. Ford Fiesta) and that individuals with BMI 30 kg/m2 use a car with more internal space (e.g. Ford Galaxy). The Ford Fiesta weighs 1530 kg and produces 147 gCO2 per km, whereas the Ford Galaxy weighs 2415 kg and produces 197 gCO2 per km.

So for the purposes of this study, we're just going to *assume* that all of the skinny folks drive tiny cars and all of the fat folks drive bigger cars. What about all of the skinny SUV drivers? What about the fat folks who drive hybrids or smaller, more fuel-efficient cars? What about all of the poorer fat people who don't even have their own car and instead take public transportation?

The increase in energy expenditure with increasing body weight should prevent further weight gain in a negative feedback loop but with rising BMI people are likely to move less, particularly those who are substantially overweight

Of course this part ignores the active fat people and imagines that all skinny people are active. It also incorrectly assumes (again) that the amount of walking a person does correlates somehow with their BMI. Furthermore, when I was digging for info I came across this article that states that driving might be better for the planet than walking anyway.

So Dr. Phil Edwards and Ian Roberts, here's some advice: no matter how many times you interpret and reinterpret these data, you're still starting off with a bunch of flawed, unproven assumptions that, despite the moderate media interest, add up to nothing more than fat-bashing, sizeist nonsense. Your "research" is focusing attention on fat people instead of the actual changes that need to be made to stop global warming. Do the planet a favor and kindly knock it off.

Thanks to DC and Marilyn for the tip

United Airlines and the upside of anger | HAES is blowin up

DeeLeigh's picture
April 21st, 2009 | Link | It's true that being fat is

It's true that being fat is correlated with being poor, and that poor people are more likely to walk, bike, or take public transport. But, sometimes it's a choice. For example, I could afford to drive to work but choose to walk/take the streetcar. Yet somehow, I'm still fat. Who'd have thought?

That article you link to is worse than the one you're criticizing. Its biggest absurdity is the assumption that everyone gets 100% of the calories they eat from beef (or dairy) - although at least they're so upfront about it that even a child would spot it.

pani113's picture
April 21st, 2009 | Link | Ridiculous

This study can be torn apart in a second. Unfortunately, I personally don't have even a second right now but maybe someone else does. I would place a little wager some special interest is behind this study. What I am happy to report is that many comments on alternative non SA sites think it is as ridiculous as we do. They are overplaying their hand.

"Fat can be beautiful. Intolerance is ALWAYS ugly!"

richie79's picture
April 21st, 2009 | Link | As I said on the Forums,

As I said on the Forums, these 'findings' contradict everything social scientists supposedly know about the strong link between fat and social class. If fat people are less likely to be able to afford to drive, or fly (thanks United) and live in smaller houses in poorer areas, how can they claim we each produce exactly a ton more CO2 than a so-called 'normal weight' person who may or may not be rich, poor, urban or rural based?

Everything about this so-called study flies in the face of established fact, which leads me to dismiss it as yet more defamatory propaganda, just one more element of the constant and ongoing drip-drip demonisation of fat people by the powerful. This is backed up by the apparent need to repeat the reporting of the study, lending it false gravitas and the impression of wider scientific support to a public for whom these constant press release-based articles all blur into one over time. I believe the World Cancer Research Fund used similar tactics when it claimed that most cancers were caused by obesity and that everyone should strive for a sub-18 BMI.

And what is it with apparently unlikely organisations jumping on the fat panic bandwagon to guarantee their 15 minutes of fame? Quite honestly, I wish they'd stuck to talking about 'hygiene and tropical medicine', though based on their disregard for basic research techniques or the importance of remaining impartial and apolitical, I'd now be similarly reluctant to trust their pronouncements on other, less controversial topics.

"if you think fat people have no self-discipline, consider the fact that they haven’t killed you yet." - Miss Conduct, Boston Globe

Feeliza April 21st, 2009 | Link | Hi, I'm new here I have to

Hi, I'm new here Smiling

I have to admit that even though I'm not actively watching the news or reading about it, I feel that the media is using fat people to blame or to point a finger at, whenever they need a culprit.

Therefore, I am glad to have found this group of bloggers who are actively aware of what's written on the subject (thank you for that !).

I'd like to add that english is not my first language, please forgive my spelling. Smiling

So now, about Fat and Global Warming ...

Did you click on the link to go to the complete article ? There is that cute polar bear staring at us kind of asking that we stop eating before it loses the last piece of land it's standing on ?

And what about the last quote : "...but making [the overweight] feel guilty antagonises them and may not help"

Wow, why bother writing all this article to conclude that targeting the fat people is not a solution ? Like, it's too late for that :-\

Viola's picture
April 22nd, 2009 | Link | Leaving aside the argument

Leaving aside the argument of whether or not fat people at more, there is no evidence that shows that people with higher BMIs consume more food, because consumption does not only mean to ingest, it can mean many other ways of using more than you need and wasting. There are so many other people who would be called out on this, but they are specifically targeting a minority group with their photos and sizeist slurs, and yet don't seem to see a problem with this as a journalistic technique.

Feeliza April 22nd, 2009 | Link | Viola, I agree with you,

Viola, I agree with you, waste of food goes both ways ; either you eat to much of it or you waste to much. And nobody can prove that a person with a higher BMI will be the one that's eating all of it ...

DeeLeigh's picture
April 22nd, 2009 | Link | And of course a fat

And of course a fat vegetarian who walks to work and back and lives in a small space is using a fraction of the resources that a fashionably thin person who drives an SUV to work and back, eats meat three times a day, and lives in a macmansion wastes. In fact, I doubt that body size is a noticeable factor in the comparison. Sometimes I think that sizism is just a method to shift guilt and blame for the kind of over-consumption that really matters.

Viola's picture
April 23rd, 2009 | Link | DeeLeigh, don't you get it?

DeeLeigh, don't you get it? Thin people don't drive SUVs. All people with BMI's under 30 drive cars the size of Ford Fiestas with similar gas mileages to that kind of car.

BigLiberty's picture
April 24th, 2009 | Link | Psshaw, this study is just a

Psshaw, this study is just a bunch of stereotypes and anecdotal evidence pumped into a statistical analysis black box. Back in the 1940s this would have been called science fiction, published in Amazing Stories, and that would be that.

Since it's anecdoterrific, I will be anecdoterrific back and completely and thoroughly disprove the claims of the study:

1. Not all fat people drive Lincoln Navigators, and not all thin people drive Ford Fiestas. In fact, most people I see driving big shiny new SUVs are thin white women with a child or two in the back.
2. Two people can eat the same exact things and be vastly different sizes. Practically anyone who is married knows that.
3. Two people can get the same amount of exercise and be vastly different sizes. Practically anyone who is married knows that.

Done! The study has been disproven, as thoroughly and scienterrifically as the original. Where's my press release?

D-Man's picture
April 24th, 2009 | Link | The power in this gut of


Next week's headline: Obese people blamed for supervillainy!

D-Man's picture
April 24th, 2009 | Link | The power in this gut of


Meowzer April 24th, 2009 | Link | What kills me is that so

What kills me is that so many news outlets presented this as a study. It's not a study. It's a LETTER.

A letter hypothesizing that fat people use more gas and purchase more food and expend more CO2 with all our driving two blocks to the store and sucking all the oxygen out of the atmosphere with our ginormous Pickwickian lung capacities. Or something like that.

They didn't even have BAD data to demonstrate these things. They had NO data. None. Not a speck of it.

And the media outlets -- all of them -- went for it.

And people believe them.

This is what we are up against. Our enemies don't even need DATA -- any at all -- to have their hypotheses presented as gospel. Why bother commissioning any studies, or even looking at the ones that already exist? Why bother even talking to any fatties? It's dangerous, we could give them cooties and the next thing you know, they're in the hospital hooked up to a Pepsi IV.

So, if people breathing 36 times a minute is the problem here, shouldn't we tell people to knock it off on the aerobics? My sitting respiratory rate is only 12 a minute, and my lungs aren't any bigger than anyone else's.

BigLiberty's picture
April 25th, 2009 | Link | Meowser, exactly right. The

Meowser, exactly right.

The authors of the letter concluded fat people eat more and drive more than thin people.

How did they arrive at this conclusion?

By assuming fat people eat more and drive more than thin people.

DeeLeigh's picture
April 26th, 2009 | Link | It's simple. They know that

It's simple. They know that the level of consumption in our society is excessive, and they grant themselves clemency by scapegoating fat people.

Fat people have been used as symbols of western overconsumption for a long time, but for the last 10 or 15 years, some in the political and scientific establishment have actually, literally, tried to blame us for it. It's ironic, because not only do fat people tend to be poor, it's my belief that most of us come from ethic groups that were quite recently (within the last few hundred years) starving. The people who were predisposed to store a lot of fat survived, and here we are.

Although habits can make a 20-40 pound difference in an individual's weight, fat people don't exist because we have a different "lifestyle" than thin people. We exist because of the genetic heritage of starvation. Body size is as heritable as height. Genetics account for more than half and as much as 80% of variation in BMI. Yet, study after study assumes that 100% of the variation is due to differences in food intake and activity level. It's so frustrating.

worrier April 27th, 2009 | Link | "It's simple. They know that

"It's simple. They know that the level of consumption in our society is excessive, and they grant themselves clemency by scapegoating fat people.

Fat people have been used as symbols of western overconsumption for a long time, but for the last 10 or 15 years, some in the political and scientific establishment have actually, literally, tried to blame us for it."

I agree. I've been reading the replies to this post over the last few days and many of them have had a theme of "hang on, it's not true, fat people don't necessarily use more resources than thinner people". Which is correct, but that doesn't go far enough. The whole original premise is lunacy. The whole of western society is based on over consumption, our economy is based on continual growth, i.e. over consumption (or supposed to be, as we're seeing it doesn't always work). This premise is picking out a subset of people from western society that are seen in (very entrenched) popular opinion as eating lots more than most, and blaming the entire western way of life on them.

The western way of life does have a negative effect on the environment, but picking out a subset of western society as being more to blame is lunacy. I think the whole argument should be described as lunacy. Whether some, most, or all fat people don't eat more than thinner people is not really at the base of arguing against the premise in my view. I don't think the argument should even get that far. I think the argument against it should start and end at "are you a fricking lunatic?!!! Don't you understand how the whole of western society and its economy works?"

I agree with DeeLeigh, that this premise scapegoats fat people. It seems to me like some of the hatrid that was directed towards the Jews in Nazi Germany during the depression. It's like a "I'm poor, look at those rich Jews, it must be their fault". I know the persecution of the Jews had a lot more to it than that, but I see some similar elements.

Hasta la vista, baby!

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