This Week In Bad Science Journalism: Fat People Stink, Am I Right?

“Can You Smell Obesity?” “Obesity Has A Smell” “Is That Obesity Smell On Your Breath?” “Obesity Has A Scent” “Apparently You Can Smell Obesity”
Publish date:
March 28, 2013
fat, media, science, fat asses, biases

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: Fatties smell SOOOOO BAAAAAD, you guys.

I’m not being sizeist or anything, science says so! Well, actually, bad science journalism says so.

Here’s the deal. In the study “Methane and Hydrogen Positivity on Breath Test Is Associated With Greater Body Mass Index and Body Fat,” published in the “Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism,” researchers found that, and I quote: “The presence of both methane and hydrogen on breath testing is associated with increased BMI and percent body fat in humans.”

The science behind this is actually rather fascinating; what’s on your breath depends not just on what you’ve been eating, my garlic-loving friends, but also on the bacteria in your gut. Gut microbes, good and bad, are actually pretty variable from person to person, and while they do their work of breaking down food in the intestine, they, well, you know. Offgas, to put it politely.

Those gases don’t just find an exit via the colon and rectum; they can also be excreted in the breath. The researchers in this study suspect that the distinct gas profile associated with some “obese” (as measured by BMI) patients is caused by colonization with Methanobrevibacter smithii (no relation), “which affects nutrient availability for the host and may contribute to weight gain.”

Pretty fascinating stuff, eh? Well, okay, maybe only fascinating if you’re a gut flora and fauna nerd. Don’t even get me started on fecal transplants, which are even more totally fascinating and amazing.

For the researchers, the study was primarily interesting because they wanted to see what kinds of correlations there were between weight gain and certain gases on the breath. This isn’t a “fatness test,” because, uh, the indicator that a patient is fat is, you know, that the patient is fat. It’s easy to tell if a patient is “fat” by medical and social standards, what with the big ole juicy fat rolls spilling all over your lab table.

The question for scientists is whether gut bacteria are related to weight gain, as many have suggested they are. Our good old friend M. smithii, for example, actively changes the way the body metabolizes food; when we talk about weight as not being purely about calories in and calories out, this is precisely what we are talking about.

Incidentally, speaking of fecal transplants (I’m sorry to bring this up again), a mouse study shows that gut microbe swaps have been shown effective when it comes to reducing the size of lardassed mice. Since most fatness research is rooted in the idea that fatness is unilaterally bad and is something that needs to be cured, this is, of course, being touted as a positive: now we can potentially “treat” fatness with an infusion of brand-new bacteria who will change the way you metabolize food.

Harnessing bacteria to work for us is nothing new (I hope you like cheese), but research on gut bacteria and explorations of how they affect metabolism is really neat stuff. The fact that gut bacteria can be detected not just through fecal samples (somehow xoRape has become xoPoop today, sorry) but through breath samples means it’s possible to quickly administer tests to patients to learn more about what’s going on in their innards.

Not just in terms of fatty mcfatty fatness, but potential medical issues as well. Yay medicine.

The media, however, are taking a slightly different tack on this research, and it’s an old and familiar one. Apparently science “reporters” are reading the word “methane” and concluding that fatties wander around excluding great big clouds of stinky gas, smelling up the joint something fierce, and a number of headlines have reinforced that conclusion.

“Can You Smell Obesity?” “Obesity Has A Smell” “Is That Obesity Smell On Your Breath?” “Obesity Has A Scent” “Apparently You Can Smell Obesity”

So, fact check: the methane present in the breath of the patients in this study? Doesn't actually smell, because natural methane is, wait for it, odorless. Breath testing equipment is needed to detect the gas.

But isn’t it funnier and doesn’t it make a better lede to say that obesity is stinky? Because, lord knows, that one has never been trotted out before, and it’s hilarious to think of big ole fat people lurching around being stinky. Certainly there’s no, like, history of saying that fat people are gross and smelly, and no one in the history of ever has used the alleged stench of obesity as yet another mark against fat people.

Fat bias is real. It’s something we talk about a lot here, but it’s worth talking about again, because these kinds of headlines are exactly why fat bias persists; and the fact that many editors didn’t get the issue until it was pointed out is notable in itself. Sarah Laskow at Smithsonian Magazine, for example, changed a rather nasty hed after Kate Harding pointed it out -- but she still needed people to explain why it was offensive.

It’s not just that this is bad science reporting -- fatness does not have a “smell” in the sense of “something you will be able to detect with your nose” -- but that it’s bad human reporting. It further entrenches discrimination against fat folks by dragging up an old and thoroughly rotted canard about fat people being gross and smelly and using it to sell papers and drive pageviews. Everyone knows fat people stink, so a headline saying that science confirms that just reinforces their biases.

Biases with real consequences. In medical treatment, for example, doctors demonstrate both implicit and explicit bias against fat patients. “A study of primary care physicians found that more than 50% viewed obese patients as awkward, unattractive and non-compliant. More than one third of these physicians characterized obese patients as weak-willed, sloppy and lazy.”

Notably, a Yale study found that when it comes to fatness and bias, empathy does not reduce bias: “When participants were informed that obesity is caused predominantly by overeating and lack of exercise, higher implicit bias relative to controls was produced; informing participants that obesity is mainly due to genetic factors did not result in lower bias...[other] participants read stories of discrimination against obese persons to evoke empathy. This did not lead to lower bias compared with controls.”

No matter what you think the root cause of fatness is, in other words, you’re likely to carry an implicit bias against fat people. That bias plays out in the form of employment discrimination, housing discrimination and more, especially for women.

Almost every fat person, particularly if she’s a fat lady, has been told that she smelled at some point in her life, often in a very vicious way, and often when she did not, in fact, smell. The alleged stench of fatness is a common taunt in playgrounds and elsewhere, used to make fat people feel self-conscious; I know I’m not the only one who’s constantly checking myself to see if I smell, and I’m just an inbetweenie.

These kinds of media biases are important to talk about, because people pick up biases from somewhere, and biased science reporting in particular can be highly dangerous, because people take it at face value.

“Science says so,” after all.