“Fairies, Unicorns and the BMI”

The BMI (Body Mass Index) is a measure of height and weight – specifically weight divided by height squared. It is the predominate measure by which health professionals and governments determine what is and is not a “healthy weight” for individuals, thereby informing them if they are “at risk” for morbidity and premature mortality. In reality, BMI is not only not a good measure of health, it is actually not a measure of health at all.

The formula was created around 1850 by the brilliant Belgian mathematician, astronomer and statistician Lambert Adolphe Jacques Quetelet – and appropriately named The Quetelet Index. Dr. Quetelet was not a health professional, and he was not interested in fat or health risk. He was fascinated by the idea of using statistics to draw conclusions about societies ─ and the “average man.” Some of us will remember the 20th century figure portraying the average family as having 2.4 children. Not only was Quetelet’s formula not health related, it was never meant to be used on individuals, only on populations.

As Stanford University mathematician Keith Devlin (the “Math Guy” on NPR’s “Weekend Edition”) recently commented, “The absurdity of using statistical formulas to make any claims about a single individual is made clear by the old joke about the man who had his head in the refrigerator and his feet in the fire: On the average, he felt fine!” A wonderful expose of the inherent mathematical absurdities with using this formula can be found in Dr. Devlin’s article Do You Believe in Fairies, Unicorns or the BMI?

The Quetelet Index remained as such until 1972 when Dr. Ancel Keys appropriated it as a proxy for body-fat percentage (renaming it the Body Mass Index) in an article in “The Journal of Chronic Diseases.” The rest, as they say, is history.

So the formula is being used for something for which it was never intended and in a mathematically indefensible manner. Are there any other problems? We have been told BMI measures health because it is a good indicator of body fatness, and therefore a good predictor of health problems and premature mortality. Is this true or isn’t it?

Statistician Dr. Gregory Kline examined this question in an article in “The Healthy Weight Journal” in 2001. He found that while the BMI can provide a fairly accurate average body-fat percentage for a large group of people; on an individual level, it is a poor predictor of body-fat percentage. Kline showed that in a sample of 1,000 people from Central Massachusetts, for a BMI of 35, the average percent body fat was around 32. However, individuals with a BMI of 35 had a range of body fat percentages from 18 to 47! (Remember the guy with his head in the fridge?) Dr. Kline also encountered the same problem when he used BMI to predict individual fitness or blood pressure, concluding that:

“Using BMI to assess degree of adiposity and, more importantly, health risk for an individual is questionable and unwarranted due to the magnitude of error in prediction.”

But wait, there is more! Not only is BMI not a good predictor of body fat, fitness, or blood pressure, BMI is also not good at predicting mortality or morbidity. In 2006, a large systematic review of the relationship between bodyweight, mortality and coronary artery disease in the esteemed British medical journal “The Lancet,” concluded that BMI was a poor predictor of either. In an accompanying editorial, another physician researcher wrote:

“BMI can definitely be left aside as a clinical and epidemiological measure of cardiovascular disease for both primary and secondary prevention.”

Two years later, in the “Archives of Internal Medicine,” Wildman et al. analyzed a representative sample of the U.S. population and found that using BMI as a proxy for health resulted in misdiagnosing 51% of the healthy people as unhealthy. Dr David Haslam, clinical director of Britain’s National Obesity Forum, got it right when he said, “It’s now widely accepted that the BMI is useless for assessing the healthy weight of individuals.”

So, there we have it. The measure we use for the supposedly most serious health problem facing us today is mathematically invalid, lacks a theoretical foundation and is a poor indicator of health. According to the “Math Guy,” this realty should come as no surprise as:

“The BMI was formulated, by a mathematician, not a medical physician, to provide a simple, easy-to-apply mathematical formula to give a broad, society-level measure of weight issues. It has absolutely no scientific or medical basis. It is based purely on a crude statistical analysis. It measures a general society trend, it does not predict.”

The utter uselessness of this measure as a proxy for health did not stop the American Medical Association (AMA) in 2013 from declaring obesity (defined as a BMI of 30 or greater) as a disease. Perhaps ironically, this was done in spite of the fact that the AMA’s own scientific advisory board recommended against the decision due to guess what?: “existing limitations of BMI to diagnose obesity in clinical practice.”

The sooner the health establishment gets its head out of the sand and owns up to this reality, the better. I probably wouldn’t bet much on that happening anytime soon. For now, however, it is at least somewhat comforting to know that the people who really know about these things are willing to lead the way – again quoting the “Math Guy”:

“Since the entire sorry saga of the BMI was started by a mathematician – one of us – I think the onus is on us, as the world’s experts on the formulation and application of mathematical formulas, to start to eradicate this nonsense and demand the responsible use of our product.”

Come on health professionals – now it’s our turn!

Weight At The Workplace

The continued use of the mathematically bereft, unscientific and ethically unacceptable BMI as a proxy for health is indicative of the stuckness common to current initiatives attempting to address weight and health at the workplace.

These programs do not save money, do not improve health and for the vast majority of folks who participate do not produce sustained weight loss – leading to ongoing weight cycling with a host of potential attendant negative psychological and physiological consequences.

Instead of wasting valuable resources on programs that attempt to make people smaller, or prescriptive-nutrition and physical activity initiatives that end up appealing to few folks who might really benefit from them, organizations can instead invest in approaches and programs that help people find peace with their bodies, their food and their movement; something that can benefit people of all sizes and shapes.

Our Health for Every Body® (HFEB®) employee program is based on the Health At Every Size® (HAES®) philosophy, approach and movement with which I have been intimately involved as a national leader for almost two decades. The HAES® approach helps people who are struggling with weight-related concerns to attain a more peaceful relationship with their bodies and their food by honoring and caring for the bodies that they presently have. It is an evidence-based approach that helps people to improve the quality of their lives without the frustration, high dropout and iatrogenic consequences that routinely accompany traditional weight loss interventions.1

Health for Every Body® is an on-site, 10-week (or 8-week) program based on the principles of Health At Every Size® that offers employees a unique, evidence-based approach for making peace with their food and their bodies. It was developed originally from a successful randomized controlled trial and retested and validated by us at a real-life quasi-experimental venue at a hospital in Mason City, Iowa.2 We have overseen the implementation of this program in 15 cities over the past two years and have been delighted with the feedback from participants.

To learn more about this program, and read comments from participants, download our FREE white paper – Weight at the Workplace.

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References:

 1. Bacon, L., Stern, J.S., VanLoan, M.D., Keim, N.L. “Size Acceptance and Intuitive Eating Improve Health for Obese, Female Chronic Dieters.” Journal of the American Dietetics Association. 105 (2005). 929-936.; Schaefer, J. T. and Magnuson, A.B.“A Review of Interventions that Promote Eating by Internal Cues.” Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. 114 (2014). 734-760.

2. Robison, et. al., “Health.”; Bacon, et. al., “Size Acceptance.”

Jon Robison, PhD, MS, MAJon is an accomplished speaker, teacher, writer and consultant. He has spent his career advocating that health promotion shift away from its traditional, biomedical, control-oriented focus, with a particular interest in why people do what they do and don’t do what they don’t do. Jon has authored numerous articles and book chapters and is a frequent presenter at national and international conferences. He is also co-author of the book, “The Spirit & Science of Holistic Health — More than Broccoli, Jogging and Bottled Water, More than Yoga, Herbs and Meditation.” This work formed the foundation for one of the first truly holistic employee wellness programs — Kailo. Kailo won awards in both Canada and The United States, and the creators lovingly claim Jon as its father. Contact Jon at: jon@salveopartners.com or jonrobison.net.

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