Being overweight may not be the be-all-end-all indicator of unhealthy bodies. Image: Flickr / -Paul H- / CC-BY-ND

It has long been conventional wisdom that being overweight puts individuals at a higher risk of all kinds of diseases. Two new studies published today, however, call this conclusion into question. The study indicates that the Body Mass Index scale does not accurately predict health risk factors.

History of the BMI

The Body Mass Index was originally developed in the mid-1800s as a measure of body fat. The scale determines whether a person is “underweight,” “normal,” “overweight,” “obese” or “morbidly obese” based on height-to-weight ratio. Body Mass Index is often used as a way to underwrite insurance or determine a course of treatment. The National Institutes of Health indicates that a BMI of more than 27.3 for women and 27.8 for men is “overweight”; the World Health Organization says the “overweight” number is 25 to 29. The WHO’s website supplies a simple formula for calculating BMI.

The study of obesity and health problems

Two studies have recently been undertaken to measure the impact of obesity on health problems and early death. One, published in the Canadian Medical Journal, finds that combined health concerns have a much higher impact on life expectancy than body mass index.

“You can take two patients, both of whom are obese, and one might be relatively light compared to the other. Yet that individual might have severe diabetes, high blood pressure and high cholesterol, and may have disabling joint disease. It never ceased to surprise us,” said researcher Dr. Raj Padwal.

Yet another study, this one published in the journal Applied Physiology, Nutrition, and Metabolism, analyzed data from nearly 30,000 individuals over 16 years. The data indicated that there was “no difference in death risks between normal-weight individuals and obese individuals” without other, underlying health problems.

The healthy obese

The takeaway from both of these studies is that obesity in and of itself does not necessarily put an individual at higher risk of early death. In short, it is possible to be “healthy” and still considered “obese” by the Body Mass Index scale. A written statement from Dr. Jennifer L Kuk, one of the researchers, outlines that:

“Moreover, it’s possible that trying – and failing – to lose weight may be more detrimental than simply staying at an elevated body weight and engaging in a healthy lifestyle that includes physical activity and a balanced diet with plenty of fruits and vegetables.”

Weight can be a factor in everything from cancer to diabetes. However, a more full-spectrum understanding of an individual’s health should go much further than a simple formula comparison of height and weight.


World Health Organization
Mathematical Association of America:

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