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Is BMI Biased Against Blacks & Women?

By November 23, 2012health + fitness

On along car ride back into NYC, I got into a heated debate with my brother -who happens to be a doctor- about the usefulness of the “Body Mass Index” (BMI) for black people. From his (medical) point of view, BMI is necessary because it’s a cheap & clear way to know if someone is at risk for weight-related illnesses. But are there certain groups, namely women & people of color, who disproportionately lose out when we rely on BMI?

 What is the Body Mass Index?

BMI is an index slot you into either the normal weight/overweight/obese categories. It’s used to screen for obesity-related illnesses like hypertension, type 2 diabetes and heart disease [1]. BMI is also being used by employers as an eligibility requirement for hiring [2] and even as a metric for determining health benefits [3]! Check out the chart below to get a sense of your BMI or click here.

Is BMI Biased?
BMI has long been criticized as a limited health metric.[4][5][6] Because your BMI takes your entire weight into account, it can’t account for the good stuff (eg. muscle, bone mass) or how bad stuff, like body fat, is distributed. Here’s why I’d argue that BMI is especially limited when it comes to measuring the health of women and people of color:

 

1. Women tend to carry more body fat than men.
Because women’s bodies carry more fat than men because of our biology. A healthy body fat percentage in women can range between 15-25% while the healthy range for men is only 10-15%. [7] Women’s bodies also produce estrogen, which may contribute to increased storage of body fat [8]. The BMI chart does not account for this however; one chart is used for both men and women. This means that women are more likely to be skewed farther down the BMI range.

 

2. Studies suggest there may be higher bone density and lean muscle mass in African-Americans, which can inflate BMI calculations. [9][10] In study published by the British Journal of Nutrition, researchers found that in a group of Blacks, Latinos, Asians and Whites with the same BMI, blacks had a lower body fat percentage than their white, latino and asian counterparts. This may suggest that other factors besides body fat can over-inflate the BMIs of black people when tested.

So What Should You Do?

1. Don’t completely ignore BMI.
If you’ve got a BMI of over 30 or under 18.5, you’re probably in trouble health-wise. Talk to your doctor about what you can do to get your health back on track. If you’re on the margins of one of the ranges (normal/overweight/obese), you should treat your BMI as a general guidepost and work from there (see #2 below).

 

2. Use multiple metrics to get a clearer sense of your health.
If your doctor tells you that you need to lose weight, ask him/her what that determination is based on. If they say it’s based on BMI and figure  you’re on the BMI margins for overweight/obese, ask your doctor for more information! A body fat percentage test using the hand-held device (pictured above) or a calipers test could give a clearer picture. And also be sure to have your blood work done to test for your cholesterol and triglyceride levels!

 

3. Exercise more and eat clean.
Need I say more on this one? You already know what blog you’re on. ;-)

-CFC

 

***Do you ignore your BMI? Why or why not? Do you think it’s best to have ONE clear metric for everyone or should health tests take gender/race differences into account? Sound off!!***

ChicFitChef.com was started by Helen Ogbara, an attorney and health enthusiast, inspired by her experiences cooking diabetic-friendly meals and getting fit at home through workout DVDs. ChicFitChef offers diabetic-friendly recipes, exercise & fitness tips and personal health-awareness interviews. Visit chicfitchef.com for a fresh perspective on living a healthy lifestyle!