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Beyond the Body Mass Index

By Pam Moore, student, SUNY Empire State College

March 25, 2016

Touching all ages, sexes and ethnic groups, the obesity epidemic has grown into a serious concern for today’s health professionals. A revealing study conducted by the Center for Disease Control and The National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey in 2009-2010 concluded with the staggering statistic that nearly 70 percent of Americans are considered overweight and obese. This means that two out of every three adults are overweight, one out of every three adults rate as obese and one in 20 adults are classified as extremely obese.

Body Mass Index is an estimate of the percentage of body fat. Research indicates a higher BMI can potentially lead to alarming conditions: coronary heart disease, high blood pressure, stroke, type 2 diabetes, abnormal levels of blood fats (cholesterol), reproductive issues, gallstones, sleep apnea, osteoarthritis and other concerning associated metabolic conditions. Calculating BMI is an inexpensive tool that patients can perform quickly at home by entering their height and weight into any of the online BMI calculators, provided at many sites such as WebMD.com.

When a patient’s BMI is of concern, doctors may perform skinfold thickness measurements, take waist measurements, obtain a complete family history, inquire about daily physical activity and assess the patient’s diet to better evaluate the patient’s health status. Beyond BMI, the location of your fat can also add to health concerns. Those patients who carry most of their fat in the belly have a higher chance of heart disease and type 2 diabetes, as opposed to those who hold body fat in their hips or thighs. Health risks and BMI also differ between ethnicities. Many African-Americans, by generally having more muscle mass, may have a high BMI, but not the health risks that are normally attributed to a higher BMI. Those of Indian descent have a risk of diabetes with a relatively lower BMI than non-Hispanic Caucasians, while Asians are considered obese at 27, in comparison to the standard obesity measuring 30 or higher.

While calculating BMI can be a useful tool to accessing potential health risks, it should not be used as a definitive diagnostic tool for body fat or overall health, as it can be misleading in certain individuals. Athletes with higher muscular structure can register a high BMI, but their actual body fat percentage can be low. An inactive individual can look deceptively in shape, yet have a higher body fat. Likewise, an overweight person may have excellent blood-sugar or cholesterol levels and good blood pressure. Conversely, in older adults and those who are sick, the BMI measurement can actually be underestimated, as they have muscle-mass loss. With this in mind, BMI should only be a starting point in gauging additional health risks.

For more information on BMI and its associated health concerns, please visit the Center for Disease Control or the National Institutes of Health websites.

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