Monday, October 11, 2010

To Be Thin or To Be Healthy?

I read an alarming article recently which stated that the US is fatter than any other country in the world. I don't think that is shocking to anyone reading. We invented this diet (or at least the most industrialized and unhealthiest parts of it). It only makes sense that Americans would eat more processed foods than any other nation, and reap more of their "benefits".

The report published by The Organization for Economic Co-Operation and Development states that according to their findings 34% of the US population is obese and a total of 68% of the population is overweight (which includes the obese people). What exactly does that mean?

Most doctors today evaluate overweight and obese people using their BMI, or Body Mass Index, which is a ratio of weight to height. There are many critics of the system who cite that overall health does not factor into the scale. A person can be classified as "overweight" and still be healthy, such as a body builder or athlete. For me I think that is splitting hairs. 98% of the population does not fall into that category, because they are normal people with normal weights based upon their food intake and activity level, not hyper athletes. But it is important to remember, the BMI classification system is not an overall health rating. It evaluates weight as it relates to your height. Period.

BMI is calculated as: Your weight in kilograms divided by your height in meters squared. Or

BMI= (kg)/ (m)*(m)
Okay--I can't figure out how to get the little "2" square to be above the text like it is supposed to to, so I just wrote it out in long form. This Blogger format kills me sometimes. A BMI of 18.5-24.9 is considered normal. A BMI of 25-29.9 is considered overweight, a BMI of above 30 is considered obese and some sites I found also stipulated that a BMI of over 35 is the definition of morbidly obese.
For the sake of argument, I will lay myself out on the line. I am 5 feet 7 inches tall and I weigh 133 pounds. My weight in kilograms is 60.3 and my height in meters is 1.70. So my BMI is 20.9. But is BMI really a good way to evaluate weight? The scale is wide enough that I could gain 26 pounds and still be considered at a normal weight. I have full faith that there might be another 5' 7" woman out there who weighs 159 pounds who is at the right weight for her body (and give me 25 years, it might be me too), but with an additional 26 pounds on me today I would be all out of whack. Do you see what I mean? Weight for each of our bodies is a very personal matter that is based upon our age and health and diet. All BMI scores serve to do is to classify people into categories. And the healthy weight category is SO WIDE that it is difficult to get a true sense of what an individual's BMI actually SHOULD be.
Calculating my own BMI brings me back to the original OEDC article I mentioned. If the OEDC is using BMI to classify whether people are overweight or obese, I would never have been classified as overwight by the study even before I began my crusade to eat real foods. Yet I was definitely overweight for my own body. I have lost 12 pounds since I decided to give up processed foods!! How many other people are eating crummy foods and looking at their BMI of 24.5 and thinking they have nothing to worry about? The problem is more complex, and for the people who have a BMI of 30+ the problem is of life and death importance.
There has been much discussion of obesity recently on many of the blogs that I read. And with the recent announcement that Mike Bloomberg had requested from the USDA to exempt soda purchases from food stamp elligibility, I have been thinking about our national weight problem too. When I began my investigation 3 years ago into what I was eating and began to limit processed foods, I was solely motivated by weight. For me, and most of my friends and colleagues, a healthy weight equals a health body.
But recently my investigation into food and what I should be eating has gone far beyond my waistline. I strongly feel that when I accepted the detrimental effects processed polyunsaturated fats (corn, soybean and canola oils, etc) had on my diet I moved past the weight issue and into the health issue. My own mother died of brain cancer when she was 50 years old. She was an avid lover of junk food. While we never knew what caused her to sucumb to such an incidious illness at such a young age, my whole family accepted it as genetics. Oh...It runs in the family. I can't prove that her diet caused her to get cancer, I am not even sure that I BELIEVE that her diet made her sick. But I know it didn't help her. She consumed the Standard American Diet along with the rest of us and never once questioned the safety of her food. Her weight was fine throughout her life. She had no reason to worry if her food was making her sick, no?
There is so much talk of obesity, and how to solve the problem. And of course there are the ever present blog commentors that love to bash anyone "who can't control themselves". And I believe that this is a fallacy. American food is not food. Processed foods are pumped more full of sugar salt and fat and calories than most whole foods ever could be, and with all the processing, you will never feel full. Processed foods set up a cycle of eating more while remaining undernourished. Whole foods, non-processed foods and real foods have better flavor and fill both your body and soul. And we eat fat. We eat butter, tallow, meat and whole milk, clearly my family's mission is now about health and not about weight. I believe that I should be eating what I am eating. If I gain 5 pounds, so be it. However, that has yet to happen. What has happened? I am more satieted, I feel better, I have more energy, my skin is clearer, my kids are calmer and I believe happier.
You can take a year, stay up late every night and research food until you are exhausted and blog about what you find. Or, you can avoid processed foods, and eat what would have been available to you in 1900. If you could not have gotten an ingredient in 1900, say soybean oil, shortening, xantham gum, High Fructose Corn Syrup or textured vegetable protiens, don't eat it. You will encounter these foods. They are everywhere. But keep your pantries clear of them and you just might have the experience I have.
If I can keep my kids from getting sick from the most common western diseases of cancer, heart disease and diabetes, I am damn well going to try. For me, it is now about health, not about weight.


  1. While weight is pretty important to us (my husband has lost 100lb), we focus more on eating good and real food. And getting plenty of exercise. It feels really good! I've been much more conscientious this pregnancy, too, and haven't had as many aches and pains. My mother is a very thin person, and her health is poor. I can't tell you how many skinny minnies I know who eat Hamburger Helper and the like with abandon. But since they're thin, it's like they think they're immune to health issues.

  2. I totally agree with you on this! I think BMI is overused and a poor measure of people's health.

  3. Don't forget what Michael Pollan says: "Avoid food products that make health claims" (Rule 8, page 19, _Food Rules_). Also, "Avoid food products with the wordoid 'lite' or the terms 'low-fat' or 'nonfat' in their names" (Rule 9, page 21, _Food Rules_). He explains, "The forty-year-old campaign to create low- and nonfat versions of traditional foods has been a failure: We've gotten fat on low-fat products. Why? Because removing the fat from foods doesn't necessarily make them nonfattening" (_Food Rules_, 21). When the makers of these so-called "lite" foods take out the fat they add processed sugars and refined carbohydrates to make up the flavor/texture. (_Food Rules_, 21, also, a little bit of _Fast Food Nation_ that I know in my head but don't have a page citation for).