Why BMI is bogus

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I sure am glad we’ve got a news organization like NPR in this country (ahem, hear that Congress?). NPR’s “math guy” Keith Devlin went on Weekend Edition Saturday to completely rip the body mass index, or BMI, a measure used in the U.S. to tell people they’re fat and unhealthy and should generally feel bad about themselves (what, that last part’s not what BMI’s supposed to be doing? Because I see a hell of a lot more fat shaming than anything else).

Devlin’s put together an amusing and enlightening list of 10 reasons why the BMI is bad science and bad policy. A little taste:

8. It makes the more cynical members of society suspect that the medical insurance industry lobbies for the continued use of the BMI to keep their profits high.

Insurance companies sometimes charge higher premiums for people with a high BMI. Among such people are all those fit individuals with good bone and muscle and little fat, who will live long, healthy lives during which they will have to pay those greater premiums.

Check out all 10 reasons and Devlin’s interview — they’re enlightening and seriously call into question the media and government panic every time reports about BMI in the US pop up. Now if you’ll excuse me I need to go find something to eat — reading about the BMI always makes me hungry.

Boston, MA

Jos Truitt is Executive Director of Development at Feministing. She joined the team in July 2009, became an Editor in August 2011, and Executive Director in September 2013. She writes about a range of topics including transgender issues, abortion access, and media representation. Jos first got involved with organizing when she led a walk out against the Iraq war at her high school, the Boston Arts Academy. She was introduced to the reproductive justice movement while at Hampshire College, where she organized the Civil Liberties and Public Policy Program’s annual reproductive justice conference. She has worked on the National Abortion Federation’s hotline, was a Field Organizer at Choice USA, and has volunteered as a Pro-Choice Clinic Escort. Jos has written for publications including The Guardian, Bilerico, RH Reality Check, Metro Weekly, and the Columbia Journalism Review. She has spoken and trained at numerous national conferences and college campuses about trans issues, reproductive justice, blogging, feminism, and grassroots organizing. Jos completed her MFA in Printmaking at the San Francisco Art Institute in Spring 2013. In her "spare time" she likes to bake and work on projects about mermaids.

Jos Truitt is an Executive Director of Feministing in charge of Development.

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Join the Conversation

  • http://feministing.com/members/abruni/ Aaron

    Obesity is still a major problem in the US, regardless of the statistics one chooses to measure. BMI, like other procedure used in medical science, has its limitations, but doctors, particularly those focused on obesity research, are well aware of this fact.

  • http://feministing.com/members/hlkolaya/ Heather

    These top ten reasons and their explanations still seem to assume that healthy = thin. again and again he says “thin, fit and healthy” as an alternative to fat or obese. nowhere does he mention that fat can = healthy. This is especially apparent in the last paragraph where he says that obesity is “one of the leading causes of poor health and premature death”. what were we saying about fat shaming? Red No. 3 wrote a great piece about these fattie death threats.. which don’t help ANYONE. Fat in and of itself is fairly fucking neutral.. it’s nutrition and exercise that are the issues- NOT fat… and because fat people can indeed have a healthy diet and exercise regularly then you cannot gauge a person’s health by the amount of fat on their bodies. I think someone forgot to tell this asshat that fat does not equal unhealthy and cries of deathfattie as archaic as the bmi calculator.

  • http://feministing.com/members/kym2011/ kym

    The BMI is flawed but has great value by virtue of being so easy to assess and having been around for so long. As a result studies around obesity risk factors, treatments have used this standard tool. The foot, yard, mile measurement is old and cumbersome but so useful because it is common and understood.
    Along with waist size BMI is very useful for risk stratification when it is very high – over 35, over 40. Certainly middling numbers – 26 to 29 will arise if people are tall, well muscled and the BMI is not a useful indicator for these people.
    Is there another easy, office based measurement that allows risk stratification?

    • http://feministing.com/members/magpie/ Magpie

      …so, if it’s easy, and it’s been around a long time, the fact that it’s both scientifically bankrupt and contributing to the rampant sizeism and fatphobia of our culture is just dandy?

      You know what’s a good measurement that allows risk stratification? Actually taking the time to talk to patients about their lifestyles, medical and family histories. You can no more tell a person’s health by their waist size (or some completely fabricated calculation from the mid-1800s) than you can tell the amount of money in a person’s bank account by the clothes on their back, though you can go around making assumptions to your heart’s content.

      Oh wait, that would actually require that doctors spend time with and get to know their patients. Our healthcare industry certainly can’t support that.

      • http://feministing.com/members/abruni/ Aaron

        It’s important not to confuse measuring the fitness of an individual with measuring the fitness of a population. Measuring an individual’s fitness with BMI only would be ridiculous, and doctors and other health professionals are well aware of that. That’s why any credible doctor will discuss things like lifestyle and medical history if a patient is concerned with their weight and fitness. But to measure the fitness of the US population, nobody can compare hundreds of millions of patients’ lifestyles and medical records. A large-scale evaluation requires comparable, quantifiable figures that are widely used – such as BMI, which is certainly not “scientifically bankrupt.”

        But, as I alluded to in my earlier post, even if one could wave a magic wand and measure the nation’s fitness by comparing everyone’s lifestyles and medical histories, the results would still be the same as comparing BMI – the majority of the US citizens are overweight and living unhealthy lifestyles.

  • anyadnight

    Haha. I like #7. For what it’s worth, as a young girl I always found myself in the underweight portion of BMI. I worked to stay there for fear that “healthy” weight was average weight and that was too fat. Obviously, I can’t blame BMI for these perceptions, but I can say that I would sit and calculate my “ideal” (underweight) goal using BMI calculators.