Obesity busybodies turn down the heat

James Woudhuysen

Topics Science & Tech

Today’s moribund capitalism always tries to kill several birds with the same cheap stone. Thus my compatriots in the Dutch world of biology, and of the built environment, have discovered that a good way to beat obesity is to lower the temperature of your central heating for a few hours a day. Cold, we’re told, makes brown adipose-tissue warm up to compensate, and that makes you lose weight. ‘Turn your [thermo]stat down now and see for yourself!’ says the delightfully named Tam Fry of the UK National Obesity Forum.

So in one move you can cut your gas bills and carbon footprint and do your figure a favour, and lower the cost to the NHS and social services of dealing with obesity and its myriad supposed consequences. No investment needed, no impact on the government deficit, no risks taken. This is the perfect prescription for our calcified era.

In fact, though, central heating is one of the great achievements of British postwar capitalism. The proportion of English homes with central heating rose from 75 to 87 per cent between 1996 and 2010. Despite all the insulation that’s been put into homes, people still turn on the heat more than they used to: in 1970, heating took 58 per cent of home energy use, but by 2004 (before gas prices soared and people started to shiver to save money), it took 68 per cent – even though, since 1970, use of home electrical appliances has risen from five to nearly 12 per cent of residential energy.

People now heat more rooms and even conservatories, and for longer periods, too. It’s just as well. In 1970, during the winter, the average temperature across a whole home equipped with central heating was a numbing 13.7 degrees celsius – and the average outside temperature was 6.2 degrees celsius. By 2008, centrally heated homes had warmed up to 16.9°C, even though outside temperatures over the previous decade averaged 6.6°C. And there’s still more good news: today’s condensing boilers are 86 per cent efficient, as against 49 per cent in 1970. In addition, counting both gas central-heating and electricity, CO2 emissions per household fell by 40 per cent over the same period.

In 2013, central heating ought to be celebrated. After all, not everyone can afford to use it: the number of households that spend upwards of 10 per cent of their income staying warm – in official terms, those suffering from ‘fuel poverty’ – rose from 1.22million to nearly four million between 2003 and 2009; even with the first signs of economic recovery, the number was still well above three million in 2011. Moreover, those statistics are for England alone, not poorly-insulated Wales or chilly Scotland.

Facts like these don’t seem to matter to the Dutch experts. They write: ‘Similarly to exercise training, we advocate temperature training.’ They also suggest that because older people in care homes and hospitals rarely encounter cold, they’re vulnerable to sudden changes in temperature. Treating flab as an infection, the Dutch add, in the most restrained terms: ‘By lack of exposure to a varied ambient temperature, entire populations may be prone to developing diseases such as obesity.’

As they concede, though, cold weather is linked to mortality. Old people need to keep warm; so do children, pregnant women, the sick, and those who work from home. The cool cats in Britain’s Department of Energy and Climate Change pontificate that this country’s ‘four-decade story about heating energy’ is ‘not the direction of travel needed to meet climate-change objectives’. But for the rest of us, getting through February means turning the radiators up, and quite right, too.

James Woudhuysen is professor of forecasting and innovation at De Montfort University, Leicester, and editor of Big Potatoes: the London Manifesto for Innovation. Read his blog here.

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Topics Science & Tech


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