Could the obesity rate in America be higher than we think it is? If so, we could be in serious trouble when it comes to our nation’s health.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than one-third of U.S. adults are obese (35.7%). And approximately 12.5 million or 17% of children and adolescents aged 2-19 are obese.
But how do we measure the obesity rate anyways? Through survey? Observance? Up to this point we’ve relied mainly on body mass index (BMI) – which is a ratio of height to weight – to measure if someone is overweight or not.
However, a new study shows that we may have to question the accuracy of the BMI measurement, especially among older females. Recent studies have shown that women tend to lose muscle mass faster as they age and may be getting inaccurate BMI readings as a result. In addition, 40% of adults today whose BMI categorizes them as overweight would actually be considered obese if their body fat percentage were also taken into account.
One solution the study proposes is lowering BMI standards, or raising them, depending on how you look at it. Currently a person with a BMI of 30 or higher is considered obese. But researchers suggest that number should be lowered to 24 for women and 28 for men, because they’re currently inaccurate.
One example of this inaccuracy is that an extremely healthy male with a muscular build and low body fat percentage could be considered obese according to his BMI measurement, when he’s in fact not. But a female with little muscle mass but plenty of body fat could look healthy and be within a healthy BMI range, but in reality be obese and potentially facing some serious health risks.
The goal of this study isn’t to lower people’s self esteem. Or to make unrealistic health standards no one can keep. The goal is to raise awareness. People who are within a ‘healthy’ BMI range right now could actually be obese and not know it. And this means they aren’t being told they’re at risk for certain diseases, or that they need to improve their health.
For perspective, applying the new standards to myself, as a 5’8” female I would only have to weigh 158 pounds to be considered obese. And under the old standard, I’d have to weigh around 200 pounds to be considered obese. That’s quite a difference. And although I’m not currently near either of those numbers, that new, lower number is close enough to my current weight to raise my concern for the future as I age, become a mother, lose muscle, etc.
On the flip side, we also have to consider the potential negative effects of these propositions. In a recent article by CNN, James Hospedales, M.D., chief of noncommunicable diseases at Pan American Health Organization, admitted that he and other researchers have known for a while now that the BMI measurement is not perfect. But that lowering the BMI standards could cause ‘issues with stigma and insurance policies.’ And that we need to carefully consider the pros and cons of these solutions before moving forward with them.
But Dr. Eric Braverman – the co-author of the BMI study – weighs on the side of making the change for the sake of our nation’s health. “Making these changes now can save the U.S. a fortune down the road, if it allows us to alert more people to their risks and prevent them from getting worse.”