BMI defects are not the obesity problem

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As many readers know, I used to weigh as much as 365 pounds. Today, I hover between 205 and 210, with a height of 5-foot-10 1/2. I often say that for 20-years-plus, I’ve had a normal-sized body.

I choose that description because I’m certainly not thin, and besides, during the dark years when most people knew I was freakishly fat before they knew a single other fact about me, normal-sized was as lofty as my goals ever got.

But according to government standards, I’m still obese, or close enough. Its standard for being overweight is having a body-mass index between 25 and 30, and to for being obese, over 30.

If I enter 5-10, 210 pounds into the body-mass-index calculator, it says my BMI is 30.1. If I enter 5-11, 205, it’s still 28.6. So either way, the government thinks I’m tubby. And, OK, I’m no body builder, and I’m never going to be a model, which is fine because I never wanted to be.

But getting back to the use of “normal,” I do concede that claiming “normal” in a nation where 2 of 3 adults are obese or overweight is no grand statement.

Some vociferous advocates would say that what’s askew in this situation is not my body but the measurement. Filmmaker Darryl Roberts, in his generally good film “America the Beautiful 2: The Thin Commandments,” takes a few minutes to show all the finely tuned athletes whom the calculator would judge obese.

I’ve heard this criticism elsewhere, too, leading some to claim that our problem is a bad measuring stick, rather than a weight problem. As is so often the case, though, “either/or” is a lousy prism through which to view. It is probably best to say that *both* are true: BMI isn’t very reliable, and Americans are too heavy.

From an advocacy point of view, I actually benefit from the lousy measurements because they bolsters my argument when I saw obesity is a huge problem for America. “Two out of three American adults...,” “one out of three American kids...,” “12 states with obesity rates over 30 percent, and none under 20...”

But even if we got a better measuring stick, the actuality of our condition would not change one bit. What if they changed the formula and, say, only 50 percent were obese or overweight, instead of 64? What if “only” 20 percent were obese, instead of 34? The numbers would be less dire, but the problem would not have changed.

We’ve still got a big problem of big, and a lot of people are in pain because of it. If we can start making progress on those fronts, who cares what the number is?


I am tired of the chants of BMI, even to Michelle Obama insisting it is "highly scientific." For individuals, it's nearly useless. On the other hand for large groups, particularly when measurements are repeated frequently, it does show trends...which you describe well.

For jocks with substantial muscle mass, BMI is crazy. They have absurdly high numbers that do not reflect their health.

Moreover, I lost count of the number of thin looking folk bragging how they were in great shape with a BMI of 24 or 22. Yet, they appear to have very little muscle development and their exposed limbs are flabby. It's likely their internal organs are swimming in fat. They're the ones who have heart attacks and people ask how that could happen.

You are certainly spot on, as always, about Americans needing to trim down. While it may be harder than slavishly relying on BMI or even the scale, other touchstones may work better. Independent of whether a guy is in a weightlifting period (thus adding heavy mass) or changing with age, how trousers fit is right there every day. I can do spot checks by how freely my wedding band moves and the like.