Have you ever gone to the doctors for something unrelated to weight, let’s say back pain, and been told that you are “overweight” or “obese?” And then felt completely humiliated, confused, and uncomfortable at the same time? I get it, and you’re not alone in experiencing this. Unfortunately, it’s so much more common than you realize. Why? Because our medical system is outdated and behind on the times. The reality is, Body Mass Index (BMI) is a total lie. This misleading and actively in-use health assessment “tool” is not a legitimate indicator of your health. That’s right – the unwarranted weight category they give you at doctors’ visits for non-weight-related issues is a joke. The truth of the matter is that BMI was never meant to be used as an individual health measurement and doesn’t take into account the full picture of your health. Yet, for reasons unknown to so many in the nutrition and non-diet world, it continues to hurt and harm every day.
Where did it even come from?
If it’s still being used in 2022 as a “gold-standard” health status assessment measure, it must be based on the most up-to-date research and science, right? WRONG. BMI got its start almost 50 years before Edison even gave us the light bulb. Back in the 1830s, an astronomer and statistician named Dr. Adolph Quetelet wanted to measure the “overall health” of the male population. Being the math guy that he was, he created the Quetelet Index (QI): the ratio of a person’s weight in kilograms to their height in square meters. The original BMI equation. He intended to use this as a way to define the “normal man.” It wasn’t created for medical purposes and Quetelet even spoke out against it being used as so! As if it wasn’t already irrelevant to what BMI is used for today, he was using data only from a white, European, male population. This means that body size and other diverse populations weren’t taken into account in this “groundbreaking” new tool. It didn’t matter if you were anyone other than a white male, the status of your health was dictated by the number based on data from them. So, if the creator of this equation even knew it was BS for determining the health of all individuals, how did it even get picked up as a tool to do exactly that?
Let’s fast forward – we’re in the 1900s and BMI is still being used the wrong way. Insurance companies capitalized on using it as an assessment tool. They claimed that they saw an increase in mortality rates in those who were “overweight” after creating weight tables from data on, you guessed it, white males. AKA, they used this as a way to save private companies money with weight as a determinant of death. The ironic thing is that later research, that included a significantly more diverse population, showed that there was actually lower mortality in people who were “overweight”. This didn’t matter to these insurance companies, though. They took their early data and continued to promote weight as a determinant of early death for the selfish reasoning of saving their private companies money.
Long story short, here’s a quick SparkNotes of why BMI is actual BS:
- It was created by an astronomer and statistician, not a health or nutrition professional/researcher.
- It was never meant to measure individual human health but to look statistically at the “overall health” of the male population.
- The original QI data was based on the weight and heights of white, middle-to-upper-class European men and didn’t consider diverse body sizes or ethnicities.
- BMI doesn’t factor in other significant components of health such as age, sex, ethnicity, body composition, fat and muscle distribution, etc. It only takes into account your weight and height.
What can we do now?
I wish I could say that the health and medical world was up-to-speed on this, but I’d be lying. BMI is still actively used as a first-line assessment measure to classify the health of individuals in medical settings everywhere. The fact that it’s still in use as a legitimate health assessment tool is truly baffling. They might as well follow the advice from cavemen when trying to examine a person’s health. The truth about BMI isn’t widespread knowledge and it’s crucial that as a community of empowered women, we have the full picture of our health.
BMI is a completely invalid indicator of overall health and does not validate you or your health in any capacity. Remember – weight is not synonymous with health. We may not be able to make an immediate change to the health and medical systems still encouraging these numbers to define us, but we can choose to ignore it. We can choose to define our health by our rules and parameters, not that of an 1800s mathematician.
I encourage you to decline to be weighed at the doctors, which many don’t realize is in your right to do as a patient. This encourages the doctor to focus on what you actually came to the appointment for, not provide unsolicited advice around weight. I encourage you to avoid using BMI as a check-up on how your health is doing. I encourage you to connect with a non-diet, weight-inclusive dietitian that will prioritize YOU and your holistic health journey.
What I don’t want for you is to allow this number to consume you. What I don’t want for you is to allow this number to dictate your food and lifestyle choices. Do not give this number the power to restrict at your next meal or to force you to rigorously exercise beyond exhaustion. It’s easier said than done – trust me, I’ve been there myself. I hope that this blog has given you the knowledge and support needed to ignore that number, to not let it consume you’re every waking moment. You are more than an 1800s statistician’s equation. We are here to support you in reclaiming your life back and redefining what health means to you.