Judging by the box office numbers, you've probably see Furious 7 by now. If not, you've seen the trailers. I bet you didn't know the truth about Vin Diesel and Dwayne Johnson.
Vin Diesel is overweight and Dwayne Johnson is obese.
Yes, you read that correctly. Diesel has a body-mass index (BMI) of 27.1 and Johnson's 34.3 which according to the standards of the U.S. government, makes them, as mentioned above, overweight and obese.
See where I am going with this? These aren't exactly the physiques that come to mind when you think about obesity in America. This points to the troubles of using BMI, a ratio of weight to height, to judge someone's health and fitness.
And yet, we hear it everywhere. For example, the French National Assembly just passed a ban on hiring models with a BMI below 18. Everything we read about obesity relies on BMI to determine who is too fat and who is just right.
BMI is a terrible method for assessing who is fat or lean but not for the reasons you may expect.
The first, and most glaring problem, is the one we posed at the start of this piece. BMI does not distinguish between fat and lean tissue so people who are large and solid get lumped into the same grouping as people who are sedentary and soft. It also cannot distinguish fat types. Visceral fat, the type that accumulates around your organs, is a danger to your health whereas the fat women carry around their hips and thighs is actually linked to lower risk for chronic health problems.
A less obvious problem is that weight is not a good predictor of mortality. Katherine Flegal of the National Center for Health Statistics explains that there is a "small but consistent” advantage to being slightly overweight. A few extra pounds has been linked to better outcomes among those with heart, lung, and kidney diseases, and to higher survival rates following surgery and car crashes. Among the elderly, the lighter you are, the more likely you are to have a hip fracture, or to die from any cause.
When Flegal (and her co authors) examined the numbers from a previous study, they found that all-cause-mortality risk is 6 percent lower for those classified as overweight, compared to those in the “normal” range.
No one can say for certain why this happens, but we can guess. Muscle is the difference maker. Muscle mass is the wild card here.
People with the most lean tissue and least amount of fat likely exercise more and burn more calories, making them healthier and therefore more likely to survive and illness or an accident. But we know the majority of Americans don't exercise that much and using BMI for the standard is not helpful to anyone.
A study in the International Journal of Obesity, found that BMI actually underestimates the prevalence of obesity when you define it (like the World Health Organization does) as a body-fat percentage over 25 in men and 35 in women. When you look at it this way, 50 percent of the people with BMI in a normal or overweight range are actually obese.
When the study looked at men with a BMI of 25 (the cutoff for line for overweight), it found their body fat ranged from 14 to 35 percent. It is obvious that we aren't likely to suggest a man with 14 percent body fat lose weight. But what about a guy who is above 25 percent? According to BMI, he is a healthy weight but he's at risk for serious health issues like heart disease and diabetes.
Sure, it is funny to think of The Rock as being obese but for every guy that gets misidentified based on muscle mass, many more get a government approved healthy status, despite the fact that they have an unhealthy body fat percentage.
So next time you read something that gives you alarming statistics about health and obesity and BMI is the basis for the conclusions, remember the numbers can be misleading. Look at everything with a critical eye.
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