Boycott BMI

I get it. Navigating the whole health and wellness industry whilst working hard to also be accepting of our already fabulous bodies is hard work. Finding the balance between making positive, beneficial lifestyle changes and avoiding toxic diet-culture is an ordeal. I haven’t mastered this yet (far from it) and I still have lots of unanswered questions- but one thing I am sure of, is that using the Body Mass Index (BMI) as a measure of health, is unhelpful for all of us.

The BMI was developed in 1982 by a Belgian Mathematician called Lambert Adolphe Jacques Quetelet, with the view of using it as a quick and easy population generalisation tool to help the government divide finances for resources. From the very beginning, Adolphe advised that it would not be useful for individuals, as it doesn’t account for many important factors when it comes to health, such as body fat percentage or fat distribution. The development process of this tool was tried and tested on, you guessed it, white European men; and so the validity of these results are immediately questioned. If this was a current trial, researchers would be advised to broaden their sample to be more inclusive and diverse. In this case, Adolphe never intended it to be used on individuals and so this issue wasn’t raised. So, if the person who developed the BMI felt it wouldn’t accurately determine overall health- why is this still so widely used today? And why did it start to be used for individual health monitoring in the first place?

Adolphe Quételet by Joseph-Arnold Demannez.jpg
Photograph from Wikipedia.

The answer is, we have no idea. It’s utterly bizarre that health industries all over the world still use the BMI on an individual basis, despite it being an outdated and inaccurate ‘guessing-tool’ that was never designed for this use in the first place. Our knowledge of health has developed greatly and, with that, we have more specific tests to monitor factors that can impact our health in more detail; such as blood sugar levels, cholesterol and blood pressure. Since we’ve had access to this type of testing it’s been determined that weight doesn’t necessarily directly correlate with health, yet the BMI is still worked out as a tick-box exercise and a sure-fire way of making someone feel stigmatised.

It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to call out this tool for being discriminatory. It doesn’t consider that females naturally have more fat than males, yet the calculation is exactly the same for both sexes. It doesn’t consider that as we age, we are likely to have more fat and less muscle. Research throughout the years has even found that a ‘slightly high’ BMI in elderly people can be protective against disease and early death. So is it ‘slightly high’? Or is it just right?

Positive young plus size female in leggings and crop top doing abs exercise on rowing machine during intense workout in modern gym with fit Asian male trainer

The number on the scale often means very little. Sure, weight can exacerbate some symptoms of some conditions, but it is by no means the only factor and is definitely not the most important one. You can weigh more but also be more active and overall ‘fitter’ than someone who weighs less. You might wear a size 18, but have lower cholesterol and a healthier diet than someone sporting a size 8. Most studies show that an ‘underweight’ BMI is more dangerous than an ‘obese’ one- yet we get praised for losing weight, sometimes until it’s too late, and utterly discriminated against if we weigh above average. The BMI, ultimately, is a name-and-shame tool to categorise us in to ‘worthy’ and ‘unworthy’. It might sound dramatic, but even health professionals demonstrate weight bias.

So many people have shared their personal stories of seeking help from their GP and being turned away or not listened to, and advised to lose weight. Internalised fatphobia is ingrained in to us all, and if we aren’t trying to unlearn these thoughts and behaviours, they will overflow in to our everyday lives. This goes for professionals too. It is not inevitable that you’re unhealthy if you are fat- so losing weight isn’t always the answer. Imagine asking for help, being made to feel ashamed of your own body (despite all the awesome things it does for you every single day) and then fearing reaching out in the future due to the huge negative impact it had on your mental health. Perhaps its not the weight that leads to health problems in people who have a ‘high’ BMI, but its the professionals who don’t take their concerns seriously and therefore don’t prevent or treat things quickly enough?

Unhappy young female with centimeter tape on face looking at camera while standing on white background in studio during weight loss

It’s time to stop discriminating against people with bigger bodies and making assumptions about their health based on an old-fashioned, extremely flawed, one-size-fits all measure. We’re all learning and that’s OK.

Want to learn more? Follow the links below to hear more about the BMI from great, inspiring minds.

IWeigh with Jameela Jamil (Podcast, Youtube & Social Media- a radically inclusive community, initially formed to remind us all that we are more than the number on the scales).

Dr. Joshua Wolrich (NHS Doctor and bestselling Author fighting, in his own words, ‘weight stigma and nutri-bollocks’. Need I say any more?).

Maintenance Phase with Aubrey Gordon and Michael Hobbes (A podcast focusing on debunking the junk-science behind health fads, wellness scams and nonsensical nutrition advice. They have a whole episode on BMI specifically which I’d 100% recommend!).


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