It's one of the last untapped energy sources, and one in which the United States leads the world. It's not just renewable, but almost impossible to get rid of. We're talking about fat. At about 3,500 calories to the pound, a 300-pound American contains the energy equivalent in fat of roughly 15 gallons of gasoline. How long will we let this resource go unused?
OK, no one is proposing drilling fat people for fuel. But when most of us are looking over our shoulders at our carbon footprints, the obese seem a, well, fat target. Americans persist in the belief that it's fat people who consume more than their share of resources, rather than, say, movie stars flying private jets to Cannes. And since existing social disincentives to obesity haven't worked, people keep suggesting ways to enhance them, including weight surcharges for airplane tickets and higher rates for medical insurance.
It is indisputable that heavy people are more expensive to fly. A study concluded that the 10 pounds Americans gained on average during the 1990s required an additional 350 million gallons of fuel a year. But as much as the airlines could use the revenue, it's highly unlikely they will start charging passengers by weight, according to a spokesman for the Air Transport Association. Peggy Howell, of the National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance, agrees. "I don't believe people are willing to stand on a scale in public," she says. She happens to weigh 300 pounds, but points out that even thin people would probably object. One of the few experts who endorse a penalty for fat fliers is Laurie Zoloth, who heads the bioethics center at Northwestern University—but for her it's a question of fairness to the person in the next seat, rather than carbon emissions. In fact, Southwest Airlines already requires passengers who can't fit in a seat without raising the armrest to pay for two seats. (The extra cost applies only if the flight is oversold.)
Zoloth, who views obesity as "a tragic addiction" people must struggle to overcome, also thinks fat people should pay more for insurance. She acknowledges that obesity is substantially genetic, but notes there are lots of conditions like that, and insurance companies can decide whom they will insure, and at what price. By contrast, Rebecca Puhl, director of research at Yale's Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity, thinks weight should be a protected category, like race or gender, which would make discrimination against fat people illegal. "Some people can diet, exercise, do everything right, and still have a tough time losing and keeping weight off," she says.
With that in mind, there's a movement among employers to reward workers for losing weight—a carrot, literally, rather than the stick of penalties. The programs are typically run by outside consultants, such as Boston-based Tangerine Wellness, which claims credit for shrinking work forces at "dozens" of companies by "several tons." At Woods Equipment Co. of Oregon, Ill., 335 workers completed the first three months of an 18-month program and lost an average of 2.24 percent of their body weight, earning more than $5,000 in rewards.
Statistically, the workers there would seem to have reduced their risk of diabetes, heart disease and even cancer. But body weight is only one indicator of a healthy lifestyle, says Steve Blair, a professor of exercise science at the University of South Carolina. Why not reward people who get enough sleep, or take steps to reduce stress? "The obese," says Blair, "are easy targets. Even the obese are biased against obesity." Blair is speaking as a "short, fat, bald old man," but he's also a fitness buff who runs 25 miles a week. And if you find yourself next to him in an airplane—well, he'll be happy to arm-wrestle you for the armrest.