Would punishing fat people even work? Science says no

Government drive to cut benefits for the obese is a terrible idea.

The government seems to have decided that one of the things missing before 2013 was adequate punishment for fat people. Here's their new resolution: if Britain's obese refuse to attend exercise sessions, they will face having their benefits cut.

Westminster Council today published a report recommending that:

"Where an exercise package is prescribed to a resident, housing and council tax benefit payments could be varied to reward or incentivise residents."

This is a familar theme. After all, obesity costs the NHS £5.1bn a year, so somehow getting that money back from the obese has a whiff of logic about it.

That whiff is sadly misplaced. Study after study has shown that punishment is not an effective strategy for helping people lose weight. Amongst them is a particularly interesting report which suggests that the health problems associated with obesity arises not from fatness alone, but also from the psychological stress caused by the social stigma that comes with being fat, which a focused social campaign like the one proposed could only exacerbate. Part of the problem is that a great deal of those who have problems with their weight are not cheerfully waiting for sufficient motivation to become thinner. They are unhappy with their size already, which can make the problem worse - compulsive eating is a common reaction to stress. Here's Caitlin Moran's excellent description of the difference between "cheerful greed" and "compulsion":

People overeat for exactly the same reason they drink, smoke, have serial one-night stands or take drugs. I must be clear that I am not talking about the kind of overeating that's just plain, cheerful greed—the kind of Rabelaisian, Falstaffian figures who treat the world as a series of sensory delights and take full joy in their wine, bread and meat. Those who walk away from a table—replete—shouting, "That was splendid!" before sitting in front of a fire, drinking port and eating truffles, don't have neuroses about food. They aren't "fat," they are simply…lavish.

No—I'm talking about those for whom the whole idea of food isn't one of pleasure, but one of compulsion. For whom thoughts of food, and the effects of food, are the constant, dreary background static to normal thought. Those who walk into the kitchen in a state bordering on panic and breathlessly eat slice after slice of bread and butter—not even tasting it—until the panic can be drowned in an almost meditative routine of chewing and swallowing, spooning and swallowing.

In this trancelike state, you can find a welcome, temporary relief from thinking for 10, 20 minutes at a time, until finally a new set of sensations—physical discomfort and immense regret—make you stop, in the same way you finally pass out on whiskey or dope. Overeating, or comfort eating, is the cheap, meek option for self-satisfaction, and self-obliteration.

Fat. But what is an adequate punishment? Photograph: Getty Images

Martha Gill writes the weekly Irrational Animals column. You can follow her on Twitter here: @Martha_Gill.

Photo: Getty
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The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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