What Everyone Is Afraid to Say About Obesity

According to the way medical professionals measure obesity, elite athletes fit into a demographic synonymous with poor health. SOURCE Anna Turner/Gallery Stock
According to the way medical professionals measure obesity, elite athletes fit into a demographic synonymous with poor health.
SOURCE Anna Turner/Gallery Stock

Throughout most of his playing career, Shaquille O’Neal was clinically obese. Not just overweight, which is a lesser form of fat, but obese. Maybe this isn’t too surprising considering Shaq is a huge guy. But how about this: When athletes Sonny Liston and Muhammad Ali fought in 1964, both were technically overweight. And yet you don’t typically hear doctors recommending that you put on a few pounds at your annual physical.

The fact that these elite athletes would fit into demographics synonymous with poor health points out a fundamental flaw in the way medical professionals measure overweight and obesity. They use a scale called BMI, which stands for body mass index. The problem? That BMI doesn’t differentiate between fat weight and muscle weight, which means that this scale thinks a 300-pound basketball player and a 300-pound video game player are pretty much the same guy, as long as they’re roughly the same height. For example, you could be a skinny couch potato at high risk of heart disease, but your BMI will put you in a healthy category. Conversely, you could be in good health yet heavier, and the BMI scale would put you in an unhealthy category.

So this isn’t just about semantics. It’s about the way we sculpt policy. This misunderstanding has major implications for the way public health officials understand and try to act on our collective health. We could be spending billions of dollars treating Shaqs for unhealthiness and treating “World of Warcraft” geeks like they’re just fine. Since 2009, the NIH has spent more than $3.3 billion on obesity research, most of which is really aimed at figuring out how to prevent chronic disease through increasing exercise and encouraging healthy eating. Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move campaign is a perfect example of this: Our first lady is always talking about childhood obesity, but her program asks our kids to move more and eat better. Getting people to change their habits won’t necessarily have any impact on their BMI, but it will improve their health. She could be at the helm of the most successful public health program in history, but, because we are measuring success through BMI and not better health, we might never know.

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SOURCE: Ozy – Benjamin Spoer