Is BMI an Accurate Gauge for Weight?

Photographer: Ambro, www.freedigitalphotos.net

A few weeks ago my friend “Sally” called me so excited because she had gotten out of bed that morning feeling a bit overweight and when she stepped on the scale she was pleasantly surprised. Instead of seeing a number that would insist she needed to lose weight, she saw a number that reflected her goal weight. It had been years since she was this small. She was so excited she began jumping up and down, and with great excitement she ran to share her joy will all of her friends via Facebook. Because where else do you share such joyous news? 🙂

{Record scratch}…..here is what really happened.

As most mornings start, a few weeks ago was no different, I made my morning call to Sally expecting to chat it up about all of our daily b.s. You know, “how did it go last night,” “you won’t believe what the kids did,” and my favorite “can you believe what so and so did?” But instead of hearing the friendly “hello” I was expecting, I was instead greeted with tears and the words “did you see my Facebook status this morning?”

I hadn’t made it around to checking my favorite guilty pleasure yet (Facebook that is), so I was clueless as to what she was referencing. I responded cautiously with “no, what’s up?”

She then proceeded to tell me about her morning of getting up and deciding she needed to assess the damage and weigh herself. Never a good thing to do when you are not prepared for what you are going to see. Knowing she would not be happy, she got on the scale and looked down. She could not believe the number she saw, it was so bad (in her mind) that she became dizzy. To make matters worse, Sally stumbled off of the scale in her dizziness and the scale exploded. I am sure you think I am speaking figuratively or joking, but I am not. Seriously, the dial busted, and the scale shattered into pieces. I don’t care how light or heavy you are if this were to happen to you, you would be horrified, as Sally was.

I love Sally, but I have to admit I got a good laugh out of her unfortunate situation.

Now fast forward to today, and add a little insult to her internal injuries–since the scale explosion and the much-needed time to accept the new number on the scale as well as a new renewed interest in losing a few pounds, Sally was ready to get on the scale again. This time, she was at the doctor’s office with her son. He had just been weighed and measured, and Sally got the nerve up to ask the nurse if she would weigh and measure her as well. The nurse smiled and said “absolutely.”

Before weighing Sally, the nurse went ahead and measured her and said: “Okay, well you are 5 foot 6.”

Sally made a face and said, “that is interesting since my driver’s license says I am 5 foot 8, and I always have been 5 foot 8.”

Not knowing how to respond, the nurse said: “well, okay let’s weigh you.” This time prepared for the number Sally expected to see, there was no horror or shock. She weighed exactly what she thought she would weigh. It was what happened next that set her over the edge.

Here was this tiny little nurse (as Sally would say she was my size, which in my opinion is a little off) looking up at Sally standing on the scale. As she moved Sally aside, she then pointed up to the BMI chart, found Sally’s height and weight and said: ” Um, well that is totally doable.” She was referring to the fact that based on Sally’s height and weight her current BMI was in the high-end of the overweight section and if Sally would lose 30 pounds she would be in the normal range.

Sally being the outspoken woman that she is (not unlike myself) says “Doable!!! 30 Pounds!!! SHUT UP SKINNY B$%CH!!!”

Although I have to admit that while having a sympathetic ear for my friend and knowing ultimately how sad this all made her feel, I was still laughing so incredibly hard about her scale drama. Who has a scale shatter on them and then goes to the doctor’s office and not only learns they are now two inches shorter but also on the high end of “overweight?” This is something you would see on a sitcom, not something your girlfriend tells you happened to her.

But all joking aside, I began to wonder about BMI and how accurate of a gauge it was for weight.

So being the girl I am and having a need to know kind of mind, I found an online BMI calculator and put in my numbers. After my friend Sally’s experience I was sure that mine would at the least say I was at the high-end of normal. Oh but no, my online BMI result was that I was underweight. WTF? Again I understand that everyone has their own perception of what is heavy is, but if I were to judge honestly where I think my weight should fall I would have said average, especially with the knowledge that Sally’s came back on the high-end of overweight.

So thinking that this BMI calculator had to be wrong, I found another–and I got the same result. Extremely frustrated and not able to understand why this stupid BMI thing would say I am underweight, and my friend is overweight, I put in my husband’s numbers. Now he is very tall, quite muscular and thin. He is not one of these tall guys that is skinny and lanky. To give you a better mental picture one of his thighs is probably the same circumference as my waist, but it is all muscle. My point is that when I put his numbers in and knowing that I was extremely fair with my rational judgment of him and his weight I expected to see a result of normal. But NO, again it said that he was overweight.

Let me just say that I was beyond frustrated–all I could think was “who created this stupid gauge anyway?”

But then it occurred to me that BMI must not take into account muscle mass–that was the only logical explanation. And I was right, after a little research I found that BMI was a gauge that was created in the mid-1800s and is based on a formula using only your height and weight. It does not account in any way for your body structure nor does it allow for any muscle mass, or even the weight of your bones and other internal organs–otherwise collectively known as “Lean Body Mass” or LBM.

PHEW!!! I was starting to fear what the BMI factor might do to the mental state of my friends and family, not to mention my own.

With muscle mass in mind, I would then have to say that I am not underweight just not very muscular, and my husband is not overweight he is normal. Sally, well I know her too well, so while I think she looks great, I know that she feels as though she is heavier than she should be. I would probably say she is on the heavier side of normal–she may argue, but I am the one writing this blog, not her. 🙂

If BMI is not an accurate gauge for weight, what is?

Instead of focusing on your scale, which Sally no longer has anyway (since hers exploded) you need to focus on your body fat percentage. There is an excellent body fat calculator at healthstatus.com. This calculator will ask you for not only your height and weight but also a few body measurements so be ready with your measuring tape. It will then give you an accurate body fat percentage and a thorough explanation.

Ladies the average body fat percentage in the U.S. is around 32% with an ideal percentage of 22%. If you are an athletic female, you should be even lower at 15-20%. However don’t deceive yourself. If you are below 10%, there may be a problem.

In conclusion, DO NOT use BMI as an accurate gauge for your weight, you may end up in tears like Sally. Trust something more precise like body fat percentage, or conversely, lean body mass.

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One Response to “Is BMI an Accurate Gauge for Weight?”

  • Dr. Michael Katz:

    Excellent article!

    You’re right about BMI’s imperfections. While absolute BMI (the actual number) may not reflect one’s muscularity, one’s BMI trend over time DOES have value.

    If your BMI is creeping upwards you need to consider why this is happening. If you are adding muscle – great! But if you’re not – then not so great.

    Thanks again for this article. I’ve talked about this on my website as well, and I agree that it is an important topic.

    Michael Katz, MD, MS
    President, EatingKids.com
    http://www.EatingKids.com

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