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Would punishing fat people even work? Science says no

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

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

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.