Central Heating Causes Obesity?

Wow.  J. came across this fabulous article in the New York Times (which discusses a paper published by some UK smarty-types in the journal Obesity Reviews).  The gist of the paper / article is that there may be a causal relationship between central heating (or, more specifically, increasingly warm homes) and the explosion in obesity rates.  I love it!  Finally, a real reason for living the way we do that people might be able to get on board with (other than the reasons of saving money and saving the planet, which don’t seem to hold much appeal to most people.)

On the flip side, though, all through this three-year experiment I’ve had some fears that the opposite might be true: that living cold might be inducing my body to slather on an extra layer of blubber, to try and up the R-value of my natural insulation.  That’s not what I want.  So far, I haven’t seen much personal evidence either way.  I did lose some weight last summer, and have gained it back this winter– but I was getting a lot more exercise in the summer, and have definitely been a slug since the snow fell (went skiing once– torqued my shoulder– have been sidelined since : (

Anyway, there may be some glaring holes in the author’s thesis.  For example, it fails to explain why obesity rates are even higher in the south, where presumably central heating developments have had little impact, than they are in New England, where you’d think the effect would be pronounced.  I call for more research!

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11 Responses to “Central Heating Causes Obesity?”

  1. Jane Says:

    Hey, that is a fascinating article. Thanks for pointing it out.

    Re the South– the point seems to be not central heating per se, but room temperature. So folks in the South, presumably, might actually be less overweight since the advent of a/c. They do like to crank it up down there, is my experience.

    They talk about “brown fat,” which is a kind of fat that actually burns calories rather than storing them, being produced only by cold. So presumably any fat layer you or I might put on during the winter would be of that kind.

    I get a lot of exercise in the winter by splitting down firewood to fit in my tiny stove, which is a good thing because otherwise, my very strong tendency when I’m chilly indoors is to move around less– just sit by the stove and read or mess around on the Internet.

    I dunno about this business of not putting on a sweater, though, that they say in the article is what keeps you thinner. That’s a bridge too far for me. I have no weight issues, though, thanks partly to all the wood chores, so it doesn’t matter one way or the other.

    Thanks again for this.

  2. John Says:

    I’m with Jane. When it’s more comfortable in than out, you tend to stay in. When you’re in, you just can’t engage in as much activity as when you’re out. So, more in, more of you.

    That said, I’m going to guess that there are advantages to central heating that outweigh the extra weight.

  3. Jane Says:

    That’s not quite what I’m saying. I’m saying that when it’s chilly *indoors*, I’m not only less likely to go out, I’m less likely to do chores or otherwise be active even indoors. If I’m chilly just inside, the very last thing I want to do is go outside where it’s even colder.

    I usually make myself do it, though, because there’s nothing like spending some time in single digit temperatures outside to make a 60-degree house feel toasty warm when you come in!

    I like the bracing outdoor cold of winter, as long as I’m warmly dressed, of course. It’s a chilly indoors that makes me unhappy and indolent.

    So in that respect, central heating — or just a bigger stove that could cope better — would likely make me physically more active in winter.

    But in any case, what the article is saying is that being a bit chilly is what produces the “brown fat” that burns up calories. If you’re never chilly, then you have less brown fat, burn fewer calories, and therefore become more overweight.

  4. Rev. Cold Says:

    DANG! All this time I thought obesity was caused by EATING not HEATING!

  5. Beth Says:

    A very interesting site and a pleasure to read — glad I stumbled across it this Dec.

    I totally agree with Jane — my experience has been the same. When it’s a bit chilly inside, the last thing I want to do is go outside where it’s even colder. I also do not feel like getting much done around the house when I am a cold, as I feel like curling up and reading or the like. However, the converse is also true: if I am too warm, I feel a bit drowsy. I am definitely most energetic when my house is within a comfortable temp range. And I do find myself wanting to eat more to warm up if I am cold. So, while I have been experimenting a bit with a cold (or “chillier than usual”) house this winter, I now don’t lower the temps (yes, I have central heating) too much as, in addition to not wanting to be uncomfortable, I don’t want to be non-productive or eat too much.

    Thanks for posting the Times article — very interesting. Though I don’t buy the central heating-weight gain premise. Unless I missed something (and I did just scan it very quickly), the entire premise seemed to be based on simply the observation that the 60s is when both central heating became wide-spread and when people starting becoming heavier. I believe the 70s-80s was the start of the obesity epidemic. But even if we go with the 60s, there are just too many other things that ocurred in the 60s that could also be related to weight gain — namely, TV becoming widespread.

    Now the brown fat thing was very interesting. I believe the article suggested or even stated that temps in the low 60s could stimulate brown fat growth, so it doesn’t take exposure to very cold temps. So, simply going outside when it’s in the low 60s or colder should generate some brown fat. People who tend to be overweight likely go outside less than the non-overweight as they’re generally not exercising (or even walking) nearly as much. So, while the existence of brown fat is interesting (I’d never heard of it), it seems a huge stretch to link it to INDOOR temps.

    Thanks for interesting posts (and readers’comments)! And good for you doing that Polar Run!

  6. Ivory Says:

    Um – look at southern food. They fry EVERYTHING. I think that explains it all. They also have more poor people, more african americans and hispanics and poorer access to healthcare. The obesity there is no mystery.

  7. Jane Says:

    Don’t believe the researchers are suggesting anything other than that higher indoor temps do tend to produce overweight, and that it’s kinda interesting that the much commented upon “obesity epidemic” has really started to take hold as indoor temps increase. (I wonder whether one could make a case for the reverse, actually!) It would obviously be only one of a number of factors.

    Know what you mean about overweight people not liking to move around so much. When my (obese) city sister comes to visit me here in the country, she stays indoors almost the entire time she’s here, even in glorious summer weather! I think some of that tendency has to do with all that extra strain on joints from the weight they have to bear. It really is a vicious circle, isn’t it.

  8. Beth Says:

    Yes, I’d tend to believe that the reverse relationship is true, even “more” true. But totally agree, it’s likely a vicious circle with both (little to no cool temp exposure) and being overweight BOTH causes and effects — at least one or many causes/effects.

  9. sara Says:

    Dude, after just traveling the whole country doing interviews, I assure you that the reason in the South is what they are eating. In hospitals. My god.

  10. acrisis Says:

    If living in a colder home encourages weight loss I would be 50 pounds lighter… my home averages 55-58F in the winter. But I have a hgb of 15! Not bad for a nonsmoking female.

  11. Cold(ish) Bedrooms | Cold House Journal Says:

    […] interesting to see some experimental data to support the theory that central heating causes obesity : […]

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