Climate Change, Fatphobia, and Junk Science

Debbie says:

It’s climate change! It’s junk science! It’s fatphobia! It’s all three at once! “New Theory: CO2 makes you fat:

It all started with a Danish scientist, Lars-Georg Hersoug, who made an astonishing discovery: “both fat and thin people taking part in the studies over a 22-year period had put on weight – and the increase was proportionately the same.”

Hmmm, do you suppose it could, just possibly, be because they were all 22 years older at the end of the study than they were at the beginning? And that weight gain is characteristic of aging? No, of course it couldn’t be that simple! You can tell just how sophisticated Hersoug is about weight science by his next comment: “The normal theory is that fat people get fatter because they don’t move as much as they should.”

No, Dr. Hersoug, that’s the simplistic theory. In more complicated models, there are many factors, and one of them is change in metabolism as people age.

Actually looking at the graphs in the article, I honestly can’t tell if they represent the same people 22 years later or a new group of people, but the text does seem to imply that it’s the same people. And the 1974 and 1996 graph are suspiciously identical: genuine data graphs don’t look like that.

But wait, there’s more. It turns out that “all” animals gain weight even under controlled laboratory conditions (someone should tell my cat, who never gains an ounce under completely unlimited feeding conditions). Never believe a scientific article that tells you that the same thing happened to “all” of 20,000 subjects.

By now, of course, we are steeped in the most literal fatphobia: fear that people are getting fatter without any evidence whatsoever either that this is happening (it is, but by nothing like the amounts that most people think it is) or that it’s a problem (it’s probably not).

At this point, the actual theorizing gets interesting. It appears that in theory, a type of neuropeptide hormones known as orexins are affected by the acidity level of blood. The orexins regulate sleep and appetite, so it is in fact possible that higher acid levels in the blood (which can be caused by breathing more carbon dioxide) increase appetite. I would love to see some real studies on this, but not by Dr. Hersoug, because …

… to “prove” this interesting hypothesis, he and two other Danish researchers did a really exciting study with six participants! They exposed them to increased CO2 for seven hours! And after the study, the three guys who had had more CO2 ate a whole six percent more than the three guys who had normal CO2 levels.

Convinced? I didn’t think so.

If all of that weren’t enough, the article goes on to (I’m not joking, and neither are they) claim that the CO2 in beer might be responsible for beer bellies and the part of the article about Hersoug ends (as all articles about weight gain are required to end) with Hersoug proclaiming “the faith sentence,” in this case that exercise and eating fruits and vegetables are the best things you can do to counter the effects of CO2 on your body.

I’m all for exercise, and fruits and vegetables. And I do recommend the rest of the article, which raises some different questions about Hersoug’s findings than the ones I saw. But, of course, the article says nothing about what we could do as a society to counteract and minimize the effects of climate change, or to counteract and minimize prejudice and misconceptions about fat people. Let’s not expect too much.

It will all be fine. Hersoug and crew have an exciting new plan: they’re going to do some tests on rats!

Thanks to Jae for the pointer.

3 thoughts on “Climate Change, Fatphobia, and Junk Science

  1. Ha, that’s the most ridiculous thing I’ve read in a few days!

    Also, I very much doubt the more CO2 –> more acidic blood –> more neurons releasing orexins chain of events would account for noticeable weight gain … the magnitude of the changes at every step in the process (amount of CO2 present in air; increase in the amount of CO2 in blood as a result of there being more CO2 in air — things like that, like gases dissolving in water where the water meets the air, are better understood as a balance between the different states than a transition from one to the other; increase in the amount of carbonic acid in blood due to the presence of CO2 in blood; change in pH of blood, etc.) would be so small, and it seems to me that, because of the … er, “leakiness”? Hard to express in words … of these chemical processes (where, again, one thing is not transformed into another, but different forms of the thing exist alongside one another in proportions that vary with environmental conditions) … means that the effect would get even smaller with each step between “more CO2 in air” and “more neurons releasing orexins”. And, as my lengthy parenthesis shows, there are a lot of steps between those two things! Because I only listed the first few …

    Even with all that, though, I do think it would be fascinating to see (serious) research into what, if any, effects climate change is having on human physiology. That had never occurred to me as a thing to study before, but now that this guy brings it up, I think it might be interesting!

  2. Also, it has started to aggravate me when, in articles like this, where they discover some subtle environmental, genetic or metabolic factor predisposing some people to be fatter than others, or people in general to be fatter than they used to be, the writer feels compelled to say something like, “But ignore everything I just said, about how complicated this metabolism stuff is! You can, and you SHOULD, get thin just by eating less and exercising more! You just might have to work harder at it than everyone else!”

    The implied obligation to knock yourself out trying to fit into some guy’s idea of what a healthy person looks like, no matter how hard it is, no matter how little you’d have to eat, or how much time you’d have to spend exercising, bugs me.

    1. Lindsay, thanks for thinking this out more carefully than I did (and with more knowledge to boot). And I agree (and tried to say) that this is an interesting area to explore, but I don’t see much value in this particular set of explorations.

      As for your second point, that’s the “faith sentence.” Click that link above to see Lynne Murray’s marvelous explanation of this phrase.

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