In high school, we took “a squared plus b squared equals c squared” to heart. It was a crucial formula to answer those many math tests that non-math majors would soon forget. Later on, like many of us conditioned by society to have and maintain slim physiques, we relied on the much simpler formula for body mass index (BMI) to determine acceptability. It’s a formula that the weight-conscious obsessed about— as long as your BMI is within range, your health is, too.
What’s the deal with BMI? It sounds like a recording company.
According to the Philippine Statistics Authority (people who know their numbers), the body mass index is defined as the “nutritional status which provides a measure of body mass ranging from thinness to obesity.” It is calculated by dividing your height by your weight, and your result will classify you to be one of the following: underweight, normal, overweight, and obese.
This indicator was first presented by Belgian polymath Adolphe Quetelet in the 1800’s. Despite his Renaissance Man status at the time, “doctor” wasn’t in his resumé. His sample population were a few hundred Belgian nationals, so the scales are more than just a little tipped here.
BMI doesn’t take a lot into consideration, either. It doesn’t account for muscle mass, physical activity, genetic makeup, pre-existing conditions, age, and even ethnicity. It’s really puzzling that a rudimentary formula went on to measure the health of our super diverse world population. If we’re going by BMI alone, the taller you are, the more burgers you are allowed eat.
So for a good while, many people were calculated to be overweight and obese when they weren’t. The complications associated with obesity were enough to send people into diet and fitness frenzies, which we all know are just cleverly recycled regimens and routines.
BMI also reinforced the harmful idea that being heavy is unhealthy. Numbers can be so intimidating, and the decimal points are enough to make anyone re-evaluate their love of bacon. This quantification does not only affect body image; insurance companies still look at your BMI to determine your premium or whether you can be insured at all.
If you really want to monitor your body fat percentage and how it affects your weight, use this Taylor Body Fat Scale instead:
So why are we still hung up on this outdated, inaccurate, pseudo health marker?
It’s hard to say. 1) Old habits die hard and 2) it’s easier to sell products with insecurity as a marketing tool. Even the obesity researcher, Ancel Keys, who repurposed BMI in the 1970s to study the obesity trend, didn’t intend for it to be used as an individual attribute. But like mild baby lotion, we applied BMI liberally all over our sense of self-worth.
The BMI is currently the easiest way to approximate the amount of body fat on a person, but we’ve seen more pushbacks in recent years, thanks to science and sensibility.
Despite its merits, you can’t argue that BMI was misused, probably on a global scale. It was meant for statistics and not individual diagnosis, especially not self-diagnosis.
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