What is a Healthy Weight?

I throw around the terms health and healthy all the time. After all, I am getting my Masters of Public Health in Health Behavior. For many people the term healthy seems rather objective.  We love to label things “healthy” or “unhealthy,” and certain things may rightly deserve the label.  Most of us can agree that smoking is “unhealthy.”  I would guess that most of us would also agree that vegetables are “healthy.” However, there is also a lot of gray area and there is an enormous amount of confusion when it comes to weight. What is a healthy weight?

According to the CDC a healthy weight is a BMI of between 18.5 and 24.9. BMI,or Body Mass Index, is method for determining whether someone is under or overweight.  BMI can be a very useful tool, but it has some major flaws, with the key flaw being that it does not account for muscle mass.  According to the BMI scale, Lebron James and Taylor Lautner are both overweight. I will let you decide from looking at the pictures below whether they are overweight.


BMI: 27.5

                                                                                                               BMI: 27.5

Additionally, with more muscle mass a very low BMI would mean a real lack of fatty tissue, which is also unhealthy.  Michael Rasmussen used to be one of the world’s best cyclists and his BMI was considered healthy according to the CDC, but this is what he looks like.

RasmussenJenniferCompare his photo with Jennifer Aniston, who reportedly has a similar BMI, but looks dramatically different.  My point is not that one is healthy and one is not, but rather that we attach a lot of value to BMIs which may or may not tell us anything.  What is more important is how you get to the BMI you are at. Some people are naturally skinny and have very little muscle mass, but some people starve themselves and constantly restrict their diets to stay at a very low weight.

BMI is often used to determine risk for heart disease, diabetes, or other chronic diseases. But a lot of emphasis is put on a person’s weight, when we know that weight doesn’t tell us the whole story. We should be looking more at things like blood sugar levels, cholesterol levels, and blood pressure because these are the real risk factors for things like heart disease and diabetes.  Another indicator that is often overlooked but seems to be a key risk factor is where your weight is located.  Waist circumference has a high correlation with heart disease and is a better predictor than BMI.

There are certainly many reasons to try to avoid being overweight: it is harder on joints, restricts activities that you can participate in, and impacts body image and self-confidence.  However, quality of life and longevity is what matters to most of us.  You can be “overweight” and still be healthy. In fact some studies suggest that people who are “overweight” live longer than those of normal weight (http://www.webmd.com/diet/news/20090625/study-overweight-people-live-longer).

Our bodies need fat; we just don’t want too much around our waists or in our blood vessels. The constant obsession with what the media portrays as “healthy” may not actually be healthy for you.  Ask yourself, what do you want to be able to do every day, how long do you want to live, and what you want your quality of life to be like? These might be the determinants of what a healthy weight is to you, not BMI.

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