The concept of Body Mass Index or BMI carries entirely too much weight in the medical world. We’re judged on and according to BMI in many cases, whether that judgement is warranted or not. And far too often that same judgement can have a real effect on our health.
Those of us with a BMI above the “normal” range are more likely to be subjected to tests and offered “treatments” we may or may not actually need. And of course we already know that the more tests you’re given the more likely you are to end up with drugs you don’t need, or injuries or illness stemming from the testing itself. Medicine’s mandate is to find something wrong with us and sell us a treatment no matter how hard it may have to work to find a problem.
Meanwhile, people in the “normal” range are given a pass and assumed to be “healthy” merely because their BMI number is more acceptable. Nevermind the fact that the BMI scale was arbitrarily changed back in 1998, shifting many of us from fit to fat literally overnight for no good reason.
Nevermind the stacks of studies showing that a large chunk of people in the “healthy” range had high blood pressure, blood sugar or cholesterol while plenty in the “danger” categories of BMI did not. Nevermind the monster 2013 meta-study—which included nearly 3 million people—that showed those with an “overweight” BMI were less likely to die than thinner folks. Nevermind the mountain of other studies backing this up.
Nope. Medicine is hung up on the concept of BMI, and it’s the yardstick we’re measured by. If we have a BMI of 25 or more, we’re automatically judged to be “at risk” for…something. We’re then poked, prodded, tested and browbeaten accordingly. But BMI isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, and no matter what Big Medicine would like us to believe, it really tells us little about our health. Here are 5 things we’re told about BMI that simply aren’t true, no matter how much they’re repeated.
Your BMI is an accurate measurement of your body fat
BMI is a mathematical formula. It uses your weight and height to make a guess at your percentage of body fat. It’s a flawed formula because it only looks at weight and height, while totally ignoring your body type and level of fitness. It doesn’t take into account differences in bone structure or density. It doesn’t consider muscle mass. By BMI alone, an incredibly fit, lean athlete might be considered “obese” purely due to the weight of their lean muscle. On the other hand, someone with very little muscle but plenty of fat could still fall well within the “normal” range.
The BMI scale was created by smart folks with our health in mind
Actually, the original BMI scale was developed clear back in 1832, when medicine was still using leeches and bloodletting. And it wasn’t created by a doctor or a scientist, it was created by a mathematician—as a tool for insurance companies. For more than 130 years the BMI scale remained unchanged, till in 1998 the U.S. suddenly lowered the threshold of each category by almost 3 whole points. Millions of people who’d been considered normal suddenly became “overweight” and millions who’d been overweight were now classed as “fat.” Why the abrupt change?
The official line is that the NIH wanted to “bring the U.S. in line” with the rest of the world by adopting international guidelines. What you don’t hear is that these “guidelines” were drafted by the International Obesity Task Force. And the IOTF was primarily funded by two Big Pharma companies who made—you guessed it—weight loss drugs. On top of that, the chairman of the NIH committee that voted to adopt the new scale was consulting for weight-loss drug manufacturers and Weight Watchers at the time.
Our health had nothing to do with it. It was all about an instant new revenue stream.
Having a BMI between 19 and 25 means you’re healthy
This myth—and the next one—really need to go. Having a low BMI only means one thing: you’re less likely to be automatically categorized as “at risk” for something based on your BMI. That means you’re less likely to be screened, tested, poked and prodded. It doesn’t mean you don’t have high blood pressure. Or high blood sugar. Or high whatever. It does mean that your doctor is less likely to check for these things. Waist-to-hip ratio, your level of activity, and your eating habits are much better predictors of your health than BMI.
Having a BMI over 25 means you’re “unhealthy”
Conversely, having a higher BMI doesn’t necessarily mean you’re “unhealthy” either. The 2013 study was the biggest, but every year we see a study or two showing that once again, people in the “overweight” BMI range have a lower risk of dying from any cause than obese people or so-called “normal” weight folks. Once again, the things that really seem to predict your risk of disease are lifestyle factors like how much exercise you get, how much sleep, and your stress levels.
A high BMI raises your risk of heart attack
This myth might be a product of the “fat makes you fat” and “dietary cholesterol clogs your arteries” mindset. In any case, the evidence is mounting that it simply isn’t true. In fact, a new study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association suggests that BMI is irrelevant.
The study looked at the heart attack rate in 4,046 pairs of identical twins (that’s 8,092 people in all). They found that that there was no real difference in those with a higher BMI—209 heart attacks in the high-BMI twins, 203 in the lower group.
BMI is a flawed tool, one that creates unnecessary stress and leads to overtesting and overtreatment. Instead of focusing on this number—or letting your doctor focus on it—look at the other factors at play in your overall health picture and focus on the real risk factors.
- Get enough exercise, whether it’s going for a walk, going for a swim, or digging in your garden. Lack of exercise is directly tied to a host of health problems.
- Get enough sleep. Sleep too appears to play a role in most of our chronic ills. Chronic lack of sleep even leads to plaque buildup in the brain, like what we see in Alzheimer’s patients.
- Eat real food. Processed food too leads to chronic poor health.
- Lower your stress levels. Stress puts a strain on every single bodily system.
And stop worrying about your BMI. It’s a math formula created for insurance companies and perfected by sellers of weight-loss drugs. It lets Big Medicine pigeonhole you and target their drug advertising…but it doesn’t tell you much about your health.