When Will The Bogus BMI be Cancelled?

Sana Pethurupillai

Body Mass Index (BMI) has commonly been used by doctors and the public alike to determine “healthy weights”. But growing criticism and expert opinions suggest that this medical measurement is not only heavily flawed and archaic but can detrimentally affect people’s mental health. 

there are numerous more issues at hand

Firstly, let’s take it back a bit. BMI is a numerical value that is derived from the height and weight of a person. The calculation involves dividing one’s weight in kilograms (kg) by their height in meters squared (m2). According to the NHS, the BMI is used to work out whether you have a ‘healthy’ weight – I put the word healthy in quotation marks because I have to attest that the Body Mass Index has almost nothing to do with your actual health. It was in fact, created by a mathematician, who wanted to find the ‘ideal weight of a man’. This particular experiment of his was only made to look at statistics of large groups of western European men and had nothing to do with individual health. Sounds like a great start for a universal health measure, right?

Clearly, there are numerous more issues at hand. Between the numbers 18.5 and 25 you are considered a healthy weight, from 25 to 30 you are overweight and a BMI of over 30 means you are obese. Sounds simple, however, various studies have pointed out how some of those with a normal BMI have a higher mortality risk and are considered unhealthier that those within the obese category. The reason for this lies in that the BMI measure cannot differentiate between muscle mass and body fat. 

BMI can also negatively affect a person’s perception of themselves and their mental health

Muscle is denser and thus weighs more per unit volume than fat. Consequently, BMI detects athletes as being significantly larger than they are due to their high ratio of body muscle to fat. For example, discus athlete Robert Harting or wrestler Steve Austin are misclassified as obese according to this index. 

Not to mention the fact that the Body Mass Index is significantly inaccurate for people of colour, especially women of colour, since the original research for this calculation was based males of European descent. Studies since have revealed that different ethnicities are subject to different healthy weight ranges. For example, a higher weight range is seen as healthier for Polynesians, in contrast to those of Asian descent who benefit from it being lower. 

In addition to the flaws mentioned thus far, BMI can also negatively affect a person’s perception of themselves and their mental health. It is no secret that society has negative perceptions on obesity and weight in general. Labelling of people as unhealthy using BMI leads to them feeling shame due to unfavourable misconceptions, such as overweight people being defined as unattractive or lazy, eventually resulting in worse health. Consequently, the BMI value can act as a trigger for so many mental health conditions and eating disorders as people try to either put on or lose weight in frantic anxiety. 

all it takes is a basic ‘BMI calculator’ search to figure out your value instantly

Along with this, people may internalise this stigma in society which results in low self-esteem and poor body image based on an inaccurate indicator of healthy weight. These thoughts are damaging. Stemming from the fear of being judged on how they look, further mental health complications such as increased anxiety or the onset of conditions such as depression are likely to arise. 

So why is BMI as a measurement still so widely used?

Well, it all boils down to the 1970s, when American physiologist Ancel Keys added onto the study which again, did not include/consider all body types or any women. Due to affordability and the simplicity of this formula, BMI began it’s take over in doctor’s offices, health clinics and even in the comfort of one’s own phone – all it takes is a basic ‘BMI calculator’ search to figure out your value instantly. 

As obviously ineffective as it is for checking whether you have a healthy weight, BMI is still being promoted by services such as The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and even The World Health Organisation (WHO) claims people should check their BMI to see if they are overweight in their ‘A healthy lifestyle – WHO recommendations’ section. Hopefully, as more people call out this deceptive measurement and more research is conducted into its ineffectiveness, this type of misleading statement will be revised, and the Body Mass Index will no longer be used to calculate our individual health.

To put it simply, BMI is cancelled. Or it should be, because your health is determined NOT by this number, but by a multitude of factors and ultimately ‘healthy’ looks different on everyone. 

Sana Pethurupillai

Featured image courtesy of Kenny Eliason via Unsplash. Image license found here. No changes were made to this image.  

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