I’m an old nurse. Literally. I graduated in 1968. When you spend half a century in the same career, you are uniquely positioned to evaluate the changes that have occurred in the medical field. If you pay attention, you can begin to put things together and identify certain trends. One of those trends is how “normal” health indicators have changed in the course of those fifty years. That is not a good thing – in many cases, what was once considered normal is now considered a disease. That’s particularly true of the BMI. And of course, a disease must be treated, preferably with the newest and most expensive medication. While treatment lines the pockets of the drug companies, it often does the patient no good.
Life Insurance and the BMI
Back in the early part of the 20th century or thereabouts, the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company started collecting data for the people they insured. Obviously, if they could identify certain conditions, they could refuse to insure or charge higher premiums because those folks were at higher risk of early death. In 1959, Met Life published tables that indicated the average weight for height in men and women. If your weight was 20% above or below this average you were considered over- or under-weight. However, Met Life weights were for the age 25 to 59 group – there were no figures for older men and women. The chief statistician for Met Life decided that the average weight at age 25 should be applied across the board; science had nothing to do with this decision.
Between 1959 and 1983, the medically recommended “desirable” weight supposedly meant the lowest risk of mortality. This weight, however, was lower than the average weight in the population Met Life insured. Pay attention to these terms. Average is a specific mathematical calculation; desirable is a subjective definition. A desirable weight for a 5’6” woman ranged from 120 to 159 pounds in 1959. The desirable weight for a 6′ man was anything between 149 and 188. Keep in mind that those weights were with clothing (calculated as three pounds for a woman and five pounds for a man) and shoes with 1” heels. So the woman in the example above was really 5’5” and the man was 5’11”. Again, there was no science in determining the desirable weight.
The Body Mass Index
For years, researchers used different definitions of what constituted obesity, with some saying that a weight 10% above the desirable range constituted obesity. Beginning in 1970, scientists began to use the concept of body mass index, or BMI. The BMI is calculated by measuring an individual’s height and weight in meters and kilograms, respectively. The weight is then divided by the height squared. When the BMI concept was first developed, a BMI above 27 was the cutoff point for being overweight. As a comparison, the Met Life woman who was 5’5” tall and weighed 120 had a BMI of 20. If she weighed 159, her BMI was 26.5.
The Obesity Epidemic
In June of 1997, experts at the World Health Organization decreed that we had an epidemic of obesity. The WHO group also decided that the normal BMI should be lowered to 25. In addition, those with a BMI of 25 to 29.9 have “preobesity.” That meant that millions of people were no longer of normal weight but were now overweight. Calling it an epidemic makes it a medical issue – enter big-pharma, which began making weight-loss drugs. Enter also big-farma and the food companies, which began making millions off of “diet” foods. The funding for this task force was supplied by the drug companies. The leader of the group is very open about the fact that he used drug companies’ muscle and money to push the urgency of the obesity epidemic as a global public health issue. But of course, he also says the money from the drug companies (he got about a million dollars) didn’t influence his decisions at all…
Why Weight Matters
In the days when food was less abundant, the most common causes of death were starvation, injury, infection and childbirth. Infant mortality was also high. Obviously, having a little extra poundage helped ward off starvation. Healing an injury means an increased metabolic rate and the need for more food. That’s particularly true in male teens, who have a higher metabolic rate anyway. Infections can greatly increase metabolism, so again, that little extra helped. Women who could hold onto extra body fat were more likely to be able to nourish babies in the womb and breastfeed afterward – low birth weight is clearly linked to infant mortality and life-long health. Babies who don’t get enough to eat have physical and mental developmental problems.
The Bottom Line
A few researchers have shown that being slightly overweight is correlated to lower overall mortality. Some of these folks were not paid by the drug companies and have of course been vilified by the establishment. Others have twisted their research to support the politically correct viewpoint or said the results are inconclusive, which often means “our findings don’t agree with the establishment view, but we’re not willing to go out on a limb and say so.” Being truly obese definitely can mean earlier mortality and fewer years of healthy, active life. However, being truly obese doesn’t mean 20 “extra” pounds.
Think about it.