BMI is DOA (Oct. 19, 2013)

For my October 19th article about Body Mass Index, childhood obesity, bullying, and the role of schools in children’s health, BMI is DOA, either click here or keep on readin’!

BMI is DOA

As I write this, I am just coming off of a weekend of mashed potatoes, football and pumpkin pie. Thanksgiving has passed us by, and as I sat happy and full around the table with family, I thought of everything for which I am truly thankful. I’m thankful for my health and the health of my loved ones. I’m thankful for my family. I’m thankful for my friends and my happiness and my own personal victories.

And I’m thankful that I did not grow up in Naples, Fla.

Sound strange? Before hearing the story of Naples native Lilly Grasso, it would have sounded strange to me, too. An 11-year-old volleyball star, Lilly was sent home from school last month with a letter from the Department of Health, informing her parents that her BMI (body mass index) was ‘above normal,’ making her overweight and putting her at high risk for obesity.

Except she isn’t. At five-foot-three and 124 pounds, Lilly is tall, muscular and has a killer volleyball spike. She eats a healthy diet and is very active — she looks to be the picture of 11-year-old girl health.

So what’s the problem? Well, Florida is one of 21 states in the U.S. that mandates BMI screenings in public schools. Starting in kindergarten, students will go through four screenings by the time they’re in high school. Lilly’s measurements put her BMI at 22, which, according to Florida Public Health, falls into the ‘at risk’ category. Her parents were (and are) understandably furious.

Is the idea of a public health screening for childhood obesity a good one in premise? Potentially. But in practice? Horrible. Atrocious. Scarring.

First of all, the delivery method is deeply flawed. Weighing the children in school is bad enough, but sending a letter home with them? It’s beyond defence.

In case you haven’t been an 11-year-old girl in a while (or ever), I’ll give you a refresher: it’s hard. It’s an awkward age full of changes, full of uncertainties, and above all else, full of bullies. I joke that looking at my middle school photos is like going through my own personal war flashbacks — something of a body image and self-esteem PTSD. The last thing that any 11-year-old girl needs is to be singled out with a ‘fat letter.’ With a culture of bullying and judgment so strong (especially in this day and age of anonymous online cruelty), would it be that challenging for the State of Florida to send home these letters in the mail?

Schools are also not pediatricians’ offices. Parents send their children to school to learn, to grow and to be nurtured … not for their yearly check-ups. I’m not a parent, but if I were I’d expect to hear from school if my child were falling behind in reading or struggling with math … not if they were getting a little bit of a tummy.

I never got a ‘fat letter’ sent home. But at 180 pounds and five-foot-two in Grade 7, I sure would have. My BMI, at the time, would have been a whopping 32.9, putting me quite firmly in the ‘obese’ category. Was I overweight? Absolutely. Would I have been healthier had I lost weight? Sure. But I wasn’t an amorphous, video-game-playing, Cheetos-eating slob. I played field hockey and lacrosse and was a champion Irish step dancer. I may have been too heavy, but I was active and strong. And BMI doesn’t tell you that.

And BMI certainly doesn’t tell you that Lilly Grasso is strong and athletic and every bit as healthy as her classmates with a BMI of 20. BMI doesn’t tell you that muscle mass weighs nearly double fat, and that while some people have slight builds, others are born with more athletic ones. BMI doesn’t tell you how fit a person is, how strong their heart is, or what their cholesterol levels are like. BMI doesn’t equal health.

A simple height-to-weight calculation, BMI was devised in … wait for it … 1830. Queen Victoria had only been on the throne for 10 years, the U.S. was still 30 years from a civil war and the average life expectancy of a North American male was 47 … but this is the calculation of a healthy body weight that we choose to use in 2013.

The BMI scale breaks numbers down into different categories: anything under 18.5 is considered ‘underweight’; ‘normal’ is 18.5 to 24.9; 25 to 29.9 means ‘overweight’ and anything above 30 is considered obese.

It is a deeply flawed calculation that fails to consider factors like muscle mass, bone density and structure, and body type. Some of the most basic BMI calculations don’t even factor in variables like age and gender. My BMI (ridiculously) puts me in the ‘underweight’ category, and classifies more than half of the NFL as ‘overweight’. It’s a measurement I wouldn’t recommend using on an adult, let alone a still-developing, still-growing, very vulnerable child.

And even leaving all of those flaws aside, Lilly Grasso’s BMI clocked in at 22 … which falls almost dead centre in the accepted ‘normal weight’ category. In my view, this makes the ‘fat letter’ Lilly received all the more horrifying and unnecessary. The screenings may have been developed as a well-intended tool to fight childhood obesity, but it certainly doesn’t function as such.

But there is a far-reaching, very applicable lesson at work here. If you’re one of the millions of people that has plugged their height and weight into an online BMI calculator and been horrified at the results, don’t fret. Talk to your physician, seek a second opinion and even consider other, more accurate measurements of health and weight. Whatever you do, don’t take your body mass index as the end-all-be-all indicator of your health.

Molly Daley is a nutritionist and runs the healthy cooking, fitness, and wellness website Diary of a Formerly Fat Girl. Find her at www.DiaryofaFormerlyFatGirl.com or follow her on Twitter, @DOAFFG

 

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