The True Cost of Fatties

There’s a lot of talk right now about how much fat people cost – specifically when it comes to gas prices and healthcare.  Are those costs calculations completely bullshit?  Yes.  Am I going to break down why?  Of course.  But before I do let me suggest this:

Anytime we choose a group of people we can identify by sight, calculate their “cost”, and then create a National program to eradicate them, we are making a grave error.

Now let’s look at some egregious misuses of math:

Someone drudged up a 2006 study that Americans use a billion more gallons of gas per year than we would use if we weighed the same as in 1960.

First, calling this a study is generous.

The authors are:

Sheldon H. Jacobson Department of Computer Science, Simulation and Optimization Laboratory,
University of Illinois, Urbana, Illinois, USA

Laura A. McLay, Department of Statistical Sciences and Operations Research, Virginia
Commonwealth University, Richmond, Virginia, USA

Neither author has any other study that has anything to do with obesity (or fuel costs) which may be why they start with a discussion about obesity and health but offer absolutely no research to support that.

Let’s look at what the researchers didn’t know when they calculated how much gas we use:

  • How many fat people have drivers licenses
  • How many fat people have cars
  • What kind of cars fat people drive
  • How many miles fat people drive
  • If fat people are driving with passengers and what the passengers weigh

In fact, the authors admit that their analysis doesn’t even try to adjust for changes in driving habits or differences in socioeconomic status since 1960 – in fact they made the assumption that there have been no changes in driving habits since 1960.

Really, these are the statistical equivalent of  “back of the envelope” numbers. But the kicker is that even if their numbers are correct, a billion gallons (which is rounding up from their actual findings of 938 million gallons) might seem like a lot until you find out that it’s only .7% of gas usage.  Less than 1 percent.

What do the authors admit has at least 3 times the impact?  Fuel economy can be improved

  • 3% by practicing better tire inflation
  • 4% by keeping the engine properly tuned
  • 10% by changing clogged air filters more often

Trying to make fat people thinner works less than 5% of the time.  Tire inflation, engine tune ups and changing air filters have a much higher rate of success, how about focusing on things that are possible and would have an impact of 17% instead of just 0.7%?

Finally I have to wonder, what’s the point of asking this question? Why would two statisticians who seem to have no experience or any other work published having anything to do with fuel use or people of size decide to do this study? There is no real reason to calculate this other than shaming fat people for being expensive.  Knowing that there is almost no chance of me becoming thinner what do they want me to do – weep and run gravel through my hair?  When, miraculously, we are done scapegoating fat people,  who is next?  Should we start calculating the cost of gas for parents who own SUVs and take their kids to multiple activities and then shame those parents?  We’re also taller than we’ve ever been – how much gas is spent because tall people choose bigger cars to fit their long legs?  Should we calculate the cost of people who own full size quad cab duallys that haul nothing more than their owners and then shame them? It seems to me that focusing on blaming individuals means that the focus is off companies that make tremendous profits from selling us gas, and the government that they heavily lobby to get favorable laws and tax code.  It strikes me that this is probably really working out for them, but not for the general public. Is this really just a giant game of “hey, look over there!?”

Speaking of shifting attention from massive public issues and onto blaming fat people, let’s talk about calculating fat people’s impact on the Healthcare system.  I blogged about this in depth here, but for a little preview, this graph represents the healthcare costs that can be attributed to disease prevalence (that’s the blue portion and the purported costs of obesity are included) and healthcare spending that can’t be attributed to disease prevalence (that has nothing to do with obesity and it is the green area)

It’s time to stop scapegoating fat people as a way to distract the public from massive issues of access to foods, safe movement options, and affordable (or free) evidence based healthcare.  It’s dangerous, irresponsible and cowardly.

Huge thanks (in no particular order) to Jon Robison,  Virginia Wood, Fall Ferguson, Linda Bacon, Deb Burgard,  Deah Schwartz,  Jeanette DePatie, Bill Fabrey, Abigail Saguy,  Lydia Jade Turner and Lisa for their help and support in researching for this particular blog.  The credit is theirs, any mistakes are all mine.

Edit:  Big Liberty has done an incredible post expounding on this post.  You can check it out here!

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23 thoughts on “The True Cost of Fatties

  1. And the lack of DECENT, country-wide, affordable, and convenient public transportation!!! Let’s focus on that too! Having lived in South Korea, I see how it can be and wish it was that way here. I use the bus system here and it’s okay but nothing like it was overseas.

    It is amazing what people will focus on in order to avoid dealing with REAL issues that need to be addressed in this country.

    1. You have a bus system? Lucky you! The area I live in is way too rural to have a bus system — you either have a car (or a reliable ride from someone else) or you don’t work, go shopping, or really do anything except sit in your own house all day. I’m not familiar with the public transportation system in South Korea, but if it’s anything like the one I’ve seen in Japan then it’s pretty impressive. Clean, efficient, on-time, pleasant to use (and easy to use once you take the time to figure it out), and easy to get to unless you live way out in the sticks.

      1. I’m not far from areas that do not have a bus system at all and the bus system here is decent but could definitely stand some improvement. I have lived in areas that do not have a bus system at all (which is why I came back here) and I know how it is to not have a way of getting around. My husband is very fit and can get around biking everywhere (he is able to bike several miles) but even that gets tricky during the winter time. We have really struggled at times when the car we relied on would have issues which is one reason we don’t have a car now (besides not being able to afford one at all).

        And yes, South Korea’s public transportation system is very similar to Japan with the exception of cost. The cost of transportation (and cost of living in general compared to Japan) is considerably cheaper. We could get on the subway for less than 1 US dollar each person and my 4 year old daughter was free (I pay $1.50 in the US to take the bus). Once we figured it out, it was very easy to use and I was out and about all the time using it.

  2. What?! What?! How can the increased wait of 1 (or even 4) people significantly affect the amount of gas used per car? How much do cars weigh? What % is the average weight of the American person in the last 45 years compared to that? I think these authors have absolutely no idea what they are talking about.

  3. Don’t forget wars, or even the peacetime military– both burn a lot of energy.

    As a proof that this is a pseudo-moral calculation, even though I’m not recommending following attitude, but what about people who get “unnecessary” exercise? People who do extreme endurance sports or who do body-building eat a lot more than they would if they were just doing maintenance exercise.

  4. Can you hear my applause over the world wide web?

    Also, have you sent your logic to the authors of the gas study to ask them to reneg on their fallacious conclusions?

  5. Now let’s calculate the enormous costs and time and resources wasted in these stupid and erroneous studies being carried out in the first place. Or the costs on the health system caused by fad dieters, injuries from over-exercising, mental illnesses made worse by poor self esteem/self hatred.. the lost lives..

  6. I was taught in school that matter can neither be created nor destroyed. So if all the fatties in the world lost dramatic amounts of weight all of a sudden, the lost kilos would go somewhere… into the sewage system as excretions, or as sweat into the atmosphere or… you get the idea. Has anybody calculated the burden of all that on the infrastructure?

    1. Obviously they could be burned as fuel. Next up: cars that are powered by the owners’ liposuction!

  7. The authors of the “study” also, apparently, did not take into consideration the improved fuel efficiency of vehicles in general since 1960, nor the effect of phasing out leaded gas. Nor the increase in population of the United States since 1960. Nor the fact that more people drive now than in 1960.

    It looks to me like they took only those facts which support their pre-determined conclusion into consideration – which is to say, it is not a scientific study at all.

  8. The assumption that we haven’t changed our driving habits since 1960 alone should show how specious this study is. I don’t get why it’s so important to some people to announce just how bad it is to be fat.

    Thank you, too, for explaining so clearly why anti-obesity rhetoric is so harmful with your second paragraph.

  9. The funny thing is, if I drove my car with an almost-empty gas tank all the time, my car would be about 60 pounds lighter – effectively, no different than if I lost 60 pounds. Should I start leaving my tank empty, putting in half a gallon twice a day so that I can drive to work and back? Is there equivalent moral judgement when I completely fill my tank and supposedly use more gas because of the additional 60 pounds?


  10. Thank you – a million zillion yesses to this.

    My standard reply when people start going on about what I cost the healthcare system is to pointedly ask them if they drive a car, if they ever drive when tired, if they drive when they don’t feel well, if they ever lose concentration, drive over the speed limit, text or talk on the phone when they drive … you get the idea. Then I ask how much they think road accidents contribute to the healthcare system. Funnily enough, nobody is really prepared to debate that much longer after bringing that one up.

    Something I have often wondered is how ‘obesity-related’ illness is actually reported or analysed. When people go on about type 2 diabetes, for example, are they somehow only looking at statistics showing people of weight who have the illness? Or of EVERYBODY who has it, regardless of weight? Are fat people somehow held to account for every single case of type 2 diabetes, heart disease etc. that is reported? Does anybody know?

  11. Oh Ragen, you and your wacky use of mere logic. Don’t you understand that these people have PROVED that fat people are using up all the gas????

    The sad part is how many people you could point all this out to who would still say it must be true because it got published.

    Le sigh.

  12. You know what I hear every time I hear people going on about the “costs” of obesity?

    Instead, I hear:

    “Those fat people and their CHRONIC conditions just DO NOT DIE QUICKLY ENOUGH. In fact, PEOPLE WITH ILLNESSES need to DIE AS QUICKLY AS POSSIBLE so that they DO NOT COST A LOT OF MONEY.”

    Way to hate on people with illnesses. Most people who have chronic conditions are able to live long, fruitful lives with proper access to treatments.

    Blaming people who have to actually use health care as the reasons for why health care is expensive is counterintuitive. You might as well suggest that we should just scrap all this “health care nonsense” in lieu of just opting out of health insurance altogether and dying quickly and out of sight.

  13. Personal vehicles have gained weight a lot faster than human beings have. Partly because heavier vehicles are safer.

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