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.

Show Hide image

Will Euroscepticism prove an unbeatable advantage in the Conservative leadership race?

Conservative members who are eager for Brexit are still searching for a heavyweight champion - and they could yet inherit the earth.

Put your money on Liam Fox? The former Defence Secretary has been given a boost by the news that ConservativeHome’s rolling survey of party members preferences for the next Conservative leader. Jeremy Wilson at BusinessInsider and James Millar at the Sunday Post have both tipped Fox for the top job.

Are they right? The expectation among Conservative MPs is that there will be several candidates from the Tory right: Dominic Raab, Priti Patel and potentially Owen Paterson could all be candidates, while Boris Johnson, in the words of one: “rides both horses – is he the candidate of the left, of the right, or both?”

MPs will whittle down the field of candidates to a top two, who will then be voted on by the membership.  (As Graham Brady, chair of the 1922 Committee, notes in his interview with my colleague George Eaton, Conservative MPs could choose to offer a wider field if they so desired, but would be unlikely to surrender more power to party activists.)

The extreme likelihood is that that contest will be between two candidates: George Osborne and not-George Osborne.  “We know that the Chancellor has a bye to the final,” one minister observes, “But once you’re in the final – well, then it’s anyone’s game.”

Could “not-George Osborne” be Liam Fox? Well, the difficulty, as one MP observes, is we don’t really know what the Conservative leadership election is about:

“We don’t even know what the questions are to which the candidates will attempt to present themselves as the answer. Usually, that question would be: who can win us the election? But now that Labour have Corbyn, that question is taken care of.”

So what’s the question that MPs will be asking? We simply don’t know – and it may be that they come to a very different conclusion to their members, just as in 2001, when Ken Clarke won among MPs – before being defeated in a landslide by Conservative activists.

Much depends not only on the outcome of the European referendum, but also on its conduct. If the contest is particularly bruising, it may be that MPs are looking for a candidate who will “heal and settle”, in the words of one. That would disadvantage Fox, who will likely be a combative presence in the European referendum, and could benefit Boris Johnson, who, as one MP put it, “rides both horses” and will be less intimately linked with the referendum and its outcome than Osborne.

But equally, it could be that Euroscepticism proves to be a less powerful card than we currently expect. Ignoring the not inconsiderable organisational hurdles that have to be cleared to beat Theresa May, Boris Johnson, and potentially any or all of the “next generation” of Sajid Javid, Nicky Morgan or Stephen Crabb, we simply don’t know what the reaction of Conservative members to the In-Out referendum will be.

Firstly, there’s a non-trivial possibility that Leave could still win, despite its difficulties at centre-forward. The incentive to “reward” an Outer will be smaller. But if Britain votes to Remain – and if that vote is seen by Conservative members as the result of “dirty tricks” by the Conservative leadership – it could be that many members, far from sticking around for another three to four years to vote in the election, simply decide to leave. The last time that Cameron went against the dearest instincts of many of his party grassroots, the result was victory for the Prime Minister – and an activist base that, as the result of defections to Ukip and cancelled membership fees, is more socially liberal and more sympathetic to Cameron than it was before. Don’t forget that, for all the worry about “entryism” in the Labour leadership, it was “exitism” – of Labour members who supported David Miliband and liked the New Labour years  - that shifted that party towards Jeremy Corbyn.

It could be that if – as Brady predicts in this week’s New Statesman – the final two is an Inner and an Outer, the Eurosceptic candidate finds that the members who might have backed them are simply no longer around.

It comes back to the biggest known unknown in the race to succeed Cameron: Conservative members. For the first time in British political history, a Prime Minister will be chosen, not by MPs with an electoral mandate of their own or by voters at a general election but by an entirelyself-selecting group: party members. And we simply don't know enough about what they feel - yet. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog. He usually writes about politics.