Weight Ain't Nothin' But a Number

References to questionable R&B artists aside, weight truly is just that – a number. 

For a handful of decades, weight has been the marker we’ve used to determine how healthy an individual is. BMI, the measurement traditionally used to classify people as overweight, relies almost exclusively on a weight/height proportionality formula. If you weighed more than you should based on your height, you were classified as overweight, and therefore unhealthy.

The tide is slowly turning when it comes to this way of thinking. Recent research is even concretely demonstrating that you can’t determine someone’s health simply by his or her weight. A study published in The International Journey of Obesity states BMI isn’t an accurate barometer of heart health: the research team found that 30% of people in the normal BMI range were at above-average risk of heart disease. At the same time, 48% of "overweight" and 29% of "obese" people were happily heart-healthy. This has startling implications for the overweight population. "Using BMI categories as the main indicator of health, an estimated 74,936,678 US adults are misclassified as cardiometabolically unhealthy or cardiometabolically healthy," the team concluded in the study. 

A second study conducted by a research team at Georgia Tech and published in the journal Obesity undermines the relationship between so-called “healthy” BMIs and longevity. In this study, researchers looked at data on about 400,000 people in the U.S. who were ages 50 to 71 at the start of the study, in 1995. The researchers followed up with them through 2009, and about 112,000 people in the study had died by then. The findings showed that the “best” BMI for the people in the study in terms of their lifespan was 26, on average – a BMI that typically indicates someone as “overweight.”

The thing that’s particularly startling about BMI – and is something I was completely ignorant about until delving into this issue – is that it originated as a means to measure population trends in the 19th century. While it has the ability to compare relative weights across populations, it wasn’t originally intended to measure individuals’ health. The idea that we’re actively misusing an antiquated tool to make judgements about individuals’ health is very troubling. 

Dr. Howard Karloff, one of the authors of the Georgia Tech study, is calling for a new, modern model of assessing health, and acknowledges that a one-size-fits-all approach isn’t going to land people in the best place. He claims that we have the ability now to create “personalized BMIs” – optimal weight ranges that are different for different people and are formed based on a variety of different factors. 

All of this new information can help us to start to reframe our definitions of what true health actually looks like. Instead of obsessively comparing our bodies to a supposedly optimal standard of health, we can start to create personalized definitions of health. Definitions that are ultimately more sustainable, because they’re based on our own individual needs – and no one else’s. 

EDIT: This amazing post about a young girl who schooled her teacher on BMI was sent to me by a 99% Fit reader. Check it out!


Let's Talk about Fatphobia

Culture tells us that thin bodies are the most attractive bodies. It also tells us that the best way to get a thin body is to consume fewer calories than what our bodies use up – the old “eat less, move more" advice.

There’s an interesting subtext lurking behind the statements above. When we convey these messages, we’re also propagating the idea that bodies that aren’t thin belong to people who are morally deficient in some way. We assume that thinness in every case can be simply achieved through disciplined diet and exercise and that a lack of discipline is what’s responsible for extra weight. Ergo, people who are not thin are lazy, indolent, and lacking in self-control. 

The reality is that diet and exercise are two in an assortment of factors that contribute to body composition, which have different proportional effects from individual to individual. But, this is a complex idea that has yet to take hold. At present, overweight people are far too often subjected to abuse stemming from our culture’s obsession with thinness. A study in the February 2016 issue of the Journal of Health Psychology found that obese women experience up to three incidents a day of stigmatization based on their weight, not just from strangers, but also the people who are supposed to love and care about them the most. From a MinnPost article on the study:

“The most common experiences involved ‘physical barriers’ (84%), ‘nasty comments from others’ (74%), ‘being stared at’ (72%) and ‘others making negative assumptions’ (72%)…The most frequent sources of the nasty comments, by the way, were spouses, friends and family members.”

Our society seems to think it’s okay to level an overwhelming amount of abuse at overweight people, which is bizarre at best and sociopathic at worst. It seems as a group, we’ve come to believe that socially ostracizing these people is the key to making them change. 

This is not only a deeply un-generous behavior, it’s also ineffective. It should come as no surprise that this incessant shaming does not in fact encourage people to adopt healthier habits – on the contrary, if people who are overweight are already engaging in unhealthy behaviors, further stigmatization only makes these habits harder to break. People who have experienced fat-shaming have also been found to be more likely to binge eat and engage in other unhealthy behaviors. Again from the MinnPost:

“Healthful behaviors were less common among the women who reported higher numbers of stigmatizing events, a finding that is consistent with other evidence linking weight-related stigmatization to avoidance of exercise and to unhealthful eating habits. 

‘Healthful activities such as maintaining a diet and exercise regimen are already challenging for most individuals, but when the additional burden of weight stigmatization is added to daily life, these goals may become unattainable,’ write the authors.”

This sociological problem is at the heart of our obesity epidemic. Conquering it doesn’t start with callously spouting “eat less, move more” at people; it starts with cultivating a healthy sense of self-image so we can be kinder to ourselves, and most importantly, others – especially the people who are struggling the most.