Good morning! Feeling great about yourself on this lovely spring day? Well, STOP, because you're fat: at least half of you who think you look awesome are actually unhealthily obese. And if you try to lose the weight, your future children will follow in your footsteps. Does this sound harsh? Don't shoot the messenger — after all, this is the type of research that has helped us battle the obesity epidemic oh-so-productively in the past!
Most doctors still use the BMI, which stands for "body mass index," to determine whether a patient is unhealthily overweight, even though critics have claimed that the 180-year-old practice is useless for some time. Now researchers are saying that the BMI downplays obesity on a massive level: about half of women and 20 percent of men misleadingly see themselves "as being the picture of health when their body-fat composition suggests they are obese," says the Los Angeles Times. The author of the study, published yesterday in the journal PLoS One, actually called the BMI the "baloney mass index" (nice one) and said its use is "feeding the failure" of public health policies and weight loss programs. His alternate solution: use a patient's ratio of fat to lean muscle mass as the "gold standard" for true obesity. The best way to calculate that is with a diagnostic test called dual-energy X-ray absorptiometry, or DXA, which costs about $300 a pop — way more expensive than the BMI, which you can measure online for free.
But there may be a cheaper solution — the study also found that a measure of the appetite-boosting hormone leptin is a cheaper way to "distinguish people with healthy levels of body fat from those carrying too much" — but then there's the theory that this "gold standard" might not be so solid. Richard N. Bergman, director of Cedars-Sinai's Obesity and Diabetes Research Institute in Los Angeles, told the LAT that he was glad the study pointed out the weakness of the BMI but that the study's authors "have chosen an arbitrary measure of obesity, particularly from the point of view of risk."
For all its shortcomings, the link between the BMI and Type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, certain cancers and other ills has been established by decades of research, Bergman said. But the precise level at which body fatness, as measured by DXA, contributes to such illnesses is not yet established. In the meantime, he said, it's hard to know whether the higher rates of obesity suggested in the current study actually translate into poorer health.
Gah! Confused yet? The article adds that "Simple measures such as waist circumference, hip circumference and waist-to-hip ratios have gained new adherents as criticism of the BMI has mounted." Simple is good! But isn't that how we got into this whole BMI mess to begin with, by oversimplifying health standards? Over at the University of Alabama, researchers are developing a computer program that can analyze photographs and "based on known patterns of fat deposition and musculature, recognize dangerous fat better than the BMI alone." Sounds like the Clueless outfit-picking program but way less fun. Anyway, the study's conclusion was that shit is "grim" and "We may be much further behind than we thought" in facing the nation's obesity epidemic. Ha, wait, did we collectively think we were doing well?
OK: let's say you somehow manage to figure out how to get healthier and lose a few pounds. Good for you! (I mean, you're probably still gross and just don't know it, but we'll humor you for the sake of this post.) Just don't try to get pregnant, because researchers have determined that women who get knocked up while dieting increase the chance of their babies' being obese and having diabetes. (Someone tell Dara-Lynn Weiss!) UK researchers studied sheep and found that ewes that got less food when they were pregnant bore lambs with altered DNA structures.This could relate to humans, researchers said, because "it shows that factors in the brain can be altered by non-hereditary mechanisms and this results in changes in the body, which could make people obese." What's a woman to do? Save the health and exercise regime for later? Well, babies born to obese women are almost three times as likely to die within one month of birth and almost twice as likely to be stillborn than babies born to women of normal weight, so that's not a good plan either.