TCS Daily

Just Say No to The 'Bull Manure' Index

By Jodi Peckich - March 6, 2006 12:00 AM

For some, "BMI" conjures up their version of the three main food groups: Burgers, Macaroni-and-cheese and Ice cream. The government, though, takes Body Mass Index seriously. It uses the measure of relative weight to height in clinical guidelines to identify, evaluate and treat overweight and obesity in adults. Generally, the higher your BMI, the higher your predisposition to health adversities such as cardiovascular disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, osteoarthritis, some cancers and premature death.

But the Body Mass Index provides only a "best guess" of the source of these troubles -- total body fat. As such the "Body Mass Index" is just that: an index for the masses. For muscularly-built athletes, it mostly overestimates body fat.

A recent article questioned its validity citing that according to the government-endorsed BMI, more than 96% of the Pittsburgh Steelers' roster is overweight or obese, exceeding 24.5 and 30 on the BMI scale. No doubt some linemen may be; but running backs, quarterbacks, defensive backs, receivers and linebackers? The Bus is big, but is he really, really fat?

At the 2006 Olympic Winter Games, the Olympic Committee concerns went the other way, toward the really, really thin. It set a minimum BMI requirement of 18.5, the lower limit for healthy weight, for each competitor in the ski jumping and Nordic combined events. The athletes needed to fulfill minimum weight requirements to be allowed to jump based on maximum ski length. Speed, strength, agility and endurance didn't matter, but BMI did. It decided who was underweight.

Thus, athletes provide exceptions at both ends of the BMI spectrum. And if those with such well-conditioned bodies are deemed by the government as "at risk," maybe its time we considered revising the system. After all, if the government uses the BMI to determine food warning labels and make a super-size wad of cash from applying surtaxes on food; and insurance companies are allowed to apply higher premiums based upon it.

Wallets aside, don't we need to place accuracy of health predictors as our highest priority? Don't we need a more reliable measure?

While the BMI measurement may serve as a mass predictor, it should not preclude us from employing methods that could provide a clearer picture of our total well-being.

Numerous factors affect our health, including genes, environment and lifestyle. We need more complete assessments, not simply a single system. If body composition is the real issue, using several calculation tools to interpret it seems reasonable.

What other tools?

Many argue that waist-to-hip ratio is a more accurate predictor of cardiovascular risk. Then there are muscle-to-fat ratios. Accurate testing methods are available and accessible, from simple skinfold caliper tests to more advanced hydrostatic weighing. Why not take advantage of the advances of modern medical technology?

Yet, when was the last time your general practitioner tested your body fat? Once, when I asked for such an assessment, I didn't receive the "pinch an inch" test, but a blank stare. Another time, a statement, "We don't do that here," along with a recommendation to go to a local gym that did. Perhaps what the medical community needs most is an agreed-upon set of tools (body weight, body fat, blood profiles, family history etc.) and a succinct, comprehensive standard of methods by which to test them.

In the meantime, whether you are a "couch Olympiad," sporadic sports enthusiast or elite (and lucky) enough to "do it" with that ski-bum, party hound Bodie Miller, we each need to be champions of our own health. It's up to the individual to fill his fork with good health.

Jodi Peckich is the owner of beneFITs & beyond, a fitness training and wellness consulting company.


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