Other reasons why fat person cost calculations are bogus

Ragen has a great article out today, please take a look if you haven’t seen it already:

The True Cost of Fatties

In her post, Ragen talks about how the back of the envelope ‘study’ done a couple of years ago that suggests fat people are killing the planet with all the extra gas we consume, and the usual shady numbers we see about how much extra healthcare dollars fat people consume. Apparently fat fatties eat money just like they eat Twinkies — in excess, and uncaring as to how it effects anyone else in their lives. We’re truly terrible people, a costly evil scourge that must be eradicated…at all costs.

Which leads me to my first additional point to Ragen’s post:

When we hear fat person cost calculations, there’s an ever-present underlying assumption that if fatties were thinnies or normals, we wouldn’t consume those extra resources. However, overwhelming evidence shows that in order to maintain a significant amount of weight loss down from a natural setpoint of significantly higher, individuals need to dedicate something like a part-time job to it: exercising for several hours a day, paying for expensive diet plans or special meals or therapies, measuring and weighing and planning and special shopping trips and scribbling in a journal–you get the picture. There’s a $60 billion dollar diet industry that derives most of its income from people going on and off temporary diets. If fat people were to do what the above ‘experts’ claim and go on mandatory, permanent, life-long diets, imagine how that number would explode. It would likely eclipse the (shady) amount (badly) estimated spent on fatty healthcare ($147 billion in 2008).

The next part of the fat person cost calculation has to do with absenteeism and the murkily-defined and -exampled presenteeism. Presenteeism is, as defined, when workers show up to work but have much lower levels of productivity than a coworker doing the same job.

…presenteeism was measured and monetized as the lost time between arriving at work and starting work on days when the employee is not feeling well, and the average frequency of losing concentration, repeating a job, working more slowly than usual, feeling fatigued at work, and doing nothing at work. [2]

From what I’ve seen, fat people are accused of presenteeism because they’re assumed to have greater health-related obstructions to doing their job. This would be most pronounced in markets that rely on physical labor. However, the studies I’ve seen that show a ‘significant’ (1% difference! Le gasp!) increase in presenteeism as defined don’t correct for age, which is strongly positively associated with both fatness and decreased productivity in manual jobs.

Fatty presenteeism and absenteeism is estimated to cost employers $73.1 billion annually. My question is, naturally: how much more productive is a starving person? (dieting is indistinguishable from a famine state) How much more productive is someone who spends a part-time job in addition to their full time job keeping off weight? How much would it cost the economy as a whole if we estimated the lost productivity of fat people due to the fact that in order to maintain a thinner state, they would have to dedicate something like 15 – 20 hours a week they could have spent working additional hours, raising up a new generation of workers, or supporting their community and the productivity of others? Methinks that would be a hella more than $73.1 billion a year.

Now for the second point I wanted to add to, or rather stress, in Ragen’s analysis:

You can single out practically any group of people you want and find additional ‘costs’ associated to their ‘lifestyles’ or genetic differences. Thin people are the awesome du jour, but they’ve got their own set of associated costs (if you believe the hype that they’re more active and so on): cost of gas getting back and forth to the gym, athletic injuries, diet plans, they live longer and hoo boy is that expensive, they take more vacations, they tend to be richer and hence de facto consume more resources, and so on. Let’s add that up.

Or parents, as mentioned by Ragen and by me in another forum: parents, especially of unfashionably large families, consume mountains more resources than childless people, have high levels of absenteeism in the workplace, and cost their employers much more in family insurance plans, childcare benefits, and so on. Let’s add that up.

Or people who get tattoos — let’s go after them, shall we? They get sicker more often, as a new tattoo is the same as an open wound. They tend to hang out in edgier clubs, are exposed to the possibility of more violence, and are probably more likely to be drug users (a purely correlative assessment, of course). Let’s add that up. And don’t get me started on people with psychological disorders like depression, bipolar, or those who’ve had traumatic backgrounds, or who are part of prejudicial groups — the extra health costs associated with their therapies and prescriptions and their decreased productivity is nigh-on criminal(big flashing sarcasm meter on all these points, of course)

And so on, and on, and on…

So why fatties? Because we cost so much more than other groups? Nope. Because our costly status is preventable, or cheaper to treat? Nope (see my Truth About Fat: References page). Because:

Fat people are scapegoats.

For what? For a breaking healthcare system, a broken health insurance paradigm, a slowing economy, global warming, hunger in non-Western countries, the declining standard of Western beauty, and pretty much anything else some random person doesn’t like and doesn’t want to either understand or tolerate.

We are in a moral panic, not an epidemic. Fat people ‘cost more’ because we are hated. Fat people destroying the earth, or anything else for that matter, is a proxy for how the moral crusaders believe we are destroying humanity.


1. Rising obesity will cost U.S. health care $344 billion a yearUSA TODAY, November 17, 2009.

2. Obese Workers Cost Workplace More Than Medical Expenses, Absenteeism. Duke Global Health Institute, October 7, 2010.

3. Obesity Promotes Global Warming? John Tierney.The New York Times, May 16, 2008, 9:49 AM

4. Wrestling with the ‘Double Burden’: Hunger and ObesityWorld Food Program USA. By Sara Draper-Zivetz  Published on February 18, 2011

4 comments on “Other reasons why fat person cost calculations are bogus

  1. I like your blog. I found you by way of Junk Food Science.

    I have a question though: what is meant by “emotional eating”? Is it like birthday parties celebrating a milestone, graduation, the big 4-Oh, getting a cast off, etc.? I’m genuinely curious as I’ve seen this in other articles like yours, but I don’t know how those guys use it themselves who criticize us. If it’s depression, then that makes me not hungry since I want to die at those times.

    I’m also reading Dances with Fat, which is a pretty good blog too.

    • bigliberty says:

      Hi Michelle,

      Thanks for reading! I love Ragen’s blog’s too (Dances with Fat).

      What doctors/scientists/science journalists typically mean when they say “emotional eating” is any eating that’s both not strictly based on hunger and has a soothing effect on the eater. For example: the well-worn rom-com trope of some jilted/cheated on/etc woman digging into an entire carton of ice cream, chips, fries, cookies (any one of the major ‘forbidden’ foods). When emotional eating is coupled with fatness, there usually exists the perception that fat people are thin people with emotional problems or bad lives who eat as a way to cope.

  2. You know what really pisses me off about the whole “fatties are costing us money!!” bullcrap? The fact that it completely ignores just how most fat people actually contribute far more than they cost. I don’t know about you, but I pay a metric shitload of tax every year, very little of which I dip into the public coffers for. I pay my own health care – a rather hefty monthly insurance fee which I probably only get about 10% back in benefits (dental and spectacles really). I supplemented several family members for years – none of whom I gave birth to or was married to. Not to mention that I supplement my own superannuation for when the time comes that I retire, because there will be no old-age pension available to me by then, like there has been for my elders.

    Not to mention the fact that I take public transport, recycle, am water-wise, have an incredibly low carbon footprint and support myself 100% without any supplementation from either government or private citizen.

    I’m afraid society makes quite a lot of money off my hard work, so people claiming the “cost of fatties” can kiss my fat arse.

  3. It’s so frustrating to me that people persist in trying to find any reason that they can to shame fat people despite so much evidence that disproves their theories. I’ve had a very bad couple of days with this. I was crying earlier today, but I have to tell you that looking at the list of articles, I burst out laughing when I saw:

    “Obesity Promotes Global Warming?”

    I mean, wow, way to go the extra mile with the hate, Mr. Tierney. Get those page clicks any way you can. SMDH.

    Oh, I’m not going to actual subject myself to the crappy article, but it made me laugh about all of this and I can’t tell you how much that meant today.

    Keep on doing what you do here! Your voice is needed.

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