Weight is the measure we are taught to use to judge our health first and foremost. This notion of weight as the ultimate indicator of healthiness is reinforced by our doctors, our television shows, our magazines, and even our friends and families. When someone says they have lost weight, we celebrate them. And when they say they have gained weight we console them.
But what does your weight actually mean? What can you really tell about a person’s state of health from her weight?
In the US, BMI (Body Mass Index) is used to classify people into weight categories which subsequently influence all kinds of important things, especially health care decisions. But there are major issues with BMI, and a lot of people are very confused about what it is.
Make no mistake, Body Mass Index is not the same thing as Body Fat Percentage. BMI is a number that is a simple calculation taking into account only weight and height. Body Fat Percentage is a measurable quantity of the percent of your body that is made up of fat.
Careful not to mix up the two numbers, they are not interchangeable. Regardless of the number though, is it really possible to categorize people based on these types of things? Can we make a judgment upon the state of our bodies based up one number?
Take a look at the BMI and Body Fat Percentage charts and their classifications.
What do these words even mean? What is “normal?” What is “average?” If 60% of the population is overweight, isn’t overweight average and normal? I enjoy the idea that there is a magical line you must cross to leave the “overweight” or “obese” categories. At 168 pounds, I will still be overweight. At 167 pounds, I will be “normal.” I understand there will be some error in any system of classifying people, but we could do better than this! What is fitness and how much does it have to do with body size? What about cardiovascular health? If a person with a body fat percentage of 29% runs several miles a week and a person with a body fat percentage of 17% does nothing but sit on the couch, who is healthier?
It is valuable to have a way to tell a person when their weight and body fat percentage fall outside the norm, since this can be an indicator of other health issues. But weight and body fat percentage don’t tell the whole story of health by any stretch of the imagination. Sometimes people lose weight, not because they want to, but because of serious illness.
When people read these charts and find where they fall within the confines of the chart, it can drastically change their ideas about themselves. Sometimes, it can be a wake-up call to someone who needs one. But sometimes it can be a detriment to the very thing it purports to protect: our health. When doctors use our weight as their entire initial impression of our health, nobody benefits. I never had a doctor take my back pain seriously until I still had it after I lost weight. In reality, my back pain has nothing to do with my weight.
Can’t we come up with a different type of metric? One that does away with the antiquated notion of BMI and instead takes into account body composition and cardiovascular health? In my mind, we need to move away from the false idea that the scale is king. Why can’t our health professionals also measure our body fat percentage as part of a routine check up? And when we apply labels to the new metric, can we have more of a sliding scale than a compartmentalized chart? A way of discussing weight with ourselves without moral judgment or shaming would go a long way toward a more rational approach to keeping our bodies healthy.
It is clear that BMI is not a reliable enough metric to base health decisions upon. While any chart that attempts to categorize will inevitably have flaws, that doesn’t mean our current way of categorizing people based on weight can’t be improved. The most disturbing factor of all is that health insurance companies use BMI to determine cost, or even denial, of coverage. There has to be a better way to do this.