Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Fat Chance

 I try to get my news from reliable sources such as Al Jazeera, New York Times and Slate, but as my husband has a yahoo email account, I find myself drawn to the headlines on Yahoo's homepage.  Today there was this gem: "Many Americans Don't Even Know They're Fat."  According to the article, over 2,400 responded to a survey online in which they provided their height and weight, from which their BMI was calculated.  The respondents were then asked where they fit on the scale and 30% who thought they were normal were actually overweight, while 70% who thought they were overweight were actually obese!

The article then provides several more percentages on how Americans grossly underestimate their weight, but what it fails to provide is additional information on the people surveyed or even provide information on the inaccuracy of BMI readings.  If a woman were 5'4" and 145lbs, then her BMI be 24.9, right on the edge of being "overweight", yet still safely "normal".  If that same woman were to gain just a pound more, up to 146lbs, than her BMI would be 25.1 and she would be overweight. Isn't is possible that she would still consider herself "normal"?  How many of the respondents straddled this fine line?  While I am sure there people who are comfortable enough with their body that they would describe themselves as "normal" even if they were five or ten pounds "overweight", or others who are thirty pounds overweight and technically obese, but don't see themselves in that way, that's a long cry from claiming Americans "don't know they're fat."  I somehow doubt the majority of people surveyed were 5'3", 230lbs and yet shocked they couldn't fit into a pair of size 6 jeans (as so many of the comments seem to suggest.)

I am shouldn't be shocked that Yahoo is using BMI calculations to push a sensationalist article, but I am surprised that people could read this without skepticism. BMI calculations don't measure "fatness" or health!  For instance, Jay Cutler, 2009 Mr. Olympia winner, is 5'10" and has a contest weight of 260lbs, with less than 4% body fat, yet his BMI is 37.3 - obese.  Kai Greene (pictured above), 2009 Arnold Classic winner, is 5'8" with a contest weight of 250lbs, less than 4% body fat, yet a BMI of 38 - again, obese.  Conversely, you can find "skinny" people who have body fat percentages of over 30% simply because they don't work out: skinny fat.  One of the comments is from a "European" who advises that as long you watch your intake, you don't even have to exercise!  That's right: as long as you don't eat much, you don't have to get all sweaty and gross, yet can still remain thin and . . . healthy?  Of course, Cutler and Greene are far from fat but that is the main contention with BMI calculations: they don't take into account muscle mass or an actual level of fitness. Just like Yahoo's article didn't take into account valid statistics or reporting.

Image courtesy


  1. another thing about BMI: it is intended for use as a public health measure, NOT for individual health analysis. nor, i should add, as a way of measuring the intrinsic worth of a person. (clearly you would never imply such a thing, but i find this point is worth making, as it sometimes gets forgotten in coverage about the "obesity epidemic" by the this is a PSA, really.)

  2. You're right, that's why I added the thought that someone might be "overweight" according to BMI, but still find themselves "normal" simply because they are happy with their appearance. How dare they, though.

  3. how dare, indeed.

    btw, i love that we have the same blog background. because we rule.