Why BMI is an Inaccurate Measure of Your Health
Another great and insightful piece by our friends at Castlewood Treatment Centers! Just in time for… ANYTIME you need additional insight on BED
For some, body mass index (BMI) is nothing more than a statistic—a number of little consequence and minimal interest. For others, though, it can be a point of true obsession. For those who struggle with binge eating or other forms of eating disorders, the BMI number can be something like a ghostly target—an indicator of optimal health, one that must be attained at all costs. And often, BMI is touted as the indicator of optimal health by well-intentioned Primary Care Physicians, who focus on this measure with clients with eating disorders.
It likely goes without saying that this level of obsession over body mass index is unhealthy. What may surprise you is that the number itself offers minimal intrinsic worth. In fact, the entire concept of the BMI has been misunderstood. While it is often heralded as an accurate predictor of overall health, this is not how it was initially intended to be used, nor is it helpful for those seeking a positive body image or a reasonable standard of personal fitness.
The Origins of BMI
To understand why BMI is a misleading metric, you first have to understand its origins. BMI was thought up by a Belgian researcher named Aolphje Quetelet, who sought a mathematical principle to aid in population studies—not the study of individual health and fitness. The concept was popularized by Ancel Keys, an American scientist who called BMI “highly serviceable in industrial and traditional populations of men over the ‘adult’ age range, from 20-65 years.”
You will notice a couple of things here. One, BMI was only ever intended as a metric for men who fall in certain demographics, so it is hardly a universal standard. Additionally, BMI’s intended use is in making general comments on the size and fitness of an entire population, not of individuals; it is a metric meant to be applied toward groups, not specific people. In fact, Keys himself said that BMI has little or no meaning among women, children or even many ethnic populations of men.
BMI and Eating Disorders
Trying to measure health according to BMI just does not work. Consider this: According to the BMI model, LeBron James—an all-time great professional athlete—is technically considered overweight, yet none of us would say he is unhealthy.
The problem is not just that BMI is unhelpful, though; in some cases, it can actually be dangerous. This is especially true in eating disorder populations. Many eating disorder clinicians and researchers have noted that our culture’s over-emphasis on BMI can be misleading, inappropriate, and harmful to those who are already struggling with stress over their own self-perceptions. When physicians utilize BMI as the only measure of health and encourage their patients to obsess over this number, it can be harmful and mis-represent someone’s actual state of health.
In theory, the BMI model could be improved. Gender-, age-, and ethnicity-specific cut-offs could render a more accurate calculation, and allow for greater customization to the individual. Until that happens, though, focus on BMI can be detrimental to the greater focus on overall healthy habits. For those who struggle with an unhelpful or unrealistic assessment of BMI—including those in the binge eating disorder community—it is imperative to seek help; part of the recovery process will entail a good, meaningful standard of what good health actually looks like. Weight and BMI should not be the sole measure of health for any individual, and there are clinicians and physicians who will work with you to discover what healthy means for you and your body.