NPR: Top Ten Reasons Why the BMI Is Totally Bogus

Why do we base advice on preventing obesity on a 200-year old formula developed by a mathematician who knew nothing about the human body?

Editor's Note: This past weekend on Morning Edition, National Public Radio's Keith Devlin took on the so-called Body Mass Index (BMI), the quasi-scientific gimmick commonly used to determine whether Americans are at a healthy weight. The BMI is based on flawed assumptions about height and weight proportionality that, among other problems, allow precious little room for the wide variety of body types that exist among people. See belowfor the top ten reasons why the BMI is counterproductive nonsense.

Americans keep putting on the pounds -- at least according to a report released this week from the Trust for America's Health. The study found that nearly two-thirds of states now have adult obesity rates above 25 percent.

But you may want to take those findings -- and your next meal -- with a grain of salt, because they're based on a calculation called the body mass index, or BMI.

As the Weekend Edition math guy, I spoke to Scott Simon and told him the body mass index fails on 10 grounds:

1. The person who dreamed up the BMI said explicitly that it could not and should not be used to indicate the level of fatness in an individual.

The BMI was introduced in the early 19th century by a Belgian named Lambert Adolphe Jacques Quetelet. He was a mathematician, not a physician. He produced the formula to give a quick and easy way to measure the degree of obesity of the general population to assist the government in allocating resources. In other words, it is a 200-year-old hack.

2. It is scientifically nonsensical.

There is no physiological reason to square a person's height (Quetelet had to square the height to get a formula that matched the overall data. If you can't fix the data, rig the formula!). Moreover, it ignores waist size, which is a clear indicator of obesity level.

3. It is physiologically wrong.

It makes no allowance for the relative proportions of bone, muscle and fat in the body. But bone is denser than muscle and twice as dense as fat, so a person with strong bones, good muscle tone and low fat will have a high BMI. Thus, athletes and fit, health-conscious movie stars who work out a lot tend to find themselves classified as overweight or even obese.

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