BMI, what it is and why it is driving eating disorders.

I’ve talked about eating disorders before and how media and public views of weight issues affect our perception of the sizes and shapes of the human body, what I haven’t talked about is some of the more specific tendencies that might have triggered an increasing incidence of eating disorders. One of these specific triggers is the BMI.

BMI, or Body Mass Index, is calculated using an individual’s weight and height to determine whether the person’s weight is in an area of risk. A BMI between 18 and 25 is considered “normal”. See the table below for how weight is categorized depending on the body mass index.

bmi-chart

The issue with this is that the bmi was not appropriate to be used for individuals. Indeed, the term was first created by Adolphe Quetelet in the late 19th Century. You might now wonder who Adolphe Quetelet was. Was he a doctor? A dietitian maybe?

He was an astronomer, mathematician, statistician and sociologist.

He didn’t call it BMI, though, he called it “social physics”. The modern term appeared later on, in 1972, in the Journal of Chronic Diseases, in a paper written by Ancel Keys.

Ancel Keys had a number of degrees, like Quetelet, but the relevant one here is probably his PhD in Biology. Biology, as a science, doesn’t actually deal with individuals, it deals with whole portions of the human kind, whole species of animals or plant. In line with that, Keys, in the above paper, established that the body mass index was designed for population study and not for the individual.

We are all unique.

This specification makes sense and the reason why might shock you: everybody is different. Getting to accept this is probably the biggest step anybody can take to overcome eating disorders and self esteem issues. This is not to say that it is the single and only step but I believe no treatment can be completely successful if we can’t accept our differences and our uniqueness.

I am not going to leave you hanging with this vague diatribe, this was just a bit of scientific background to move on to this point: bmi makes you believe that, in order to have the perfect body, you need to reach your ideal weight and that this magical number on the scale will be the one that gives you a bmi of 22. What the bmi doesn’t tell you is that all that is bullshit.

Don’t look at me like that, it is. It’s rubbish because, as I said, bmi was never designed to measure individuals. And it can’t measure individuals. It can’t measure me with the same set of rules that it measures you or anybody else. Our bodies don’t work the same and hence can’t have the same weight, shape, size or even proportions.

Because of our individuality, each one of our bodies has its own internal workings. Our metabolisms work in different ways and at different rates and have, you probably guessed it, different needs. That’s why you might be hungry at times I am not and you might want salad when I feel like fish. If we can accept this,  we can accept that our bodies might be hungrier than others’s and that we might need to eat more often or less often than other people do.

The problem with that is that society has told us that eating when you’re hungry is wrong. Don’t munch between meals. Eat this, don’t eat that. Don’t eat that much. Don’t eat that little. It’s too early for dinner. It’s too late for lunch. That has too much sugar, that has too much fat. That doesn’t have enough fat. No no, bananas are not fruit, they’re full of sugar.

So what do you do now? What do you eat? When do you eat?

What we have learnt is to disregard our own body. Ignore our own signals and follow socially “acceptable” rules of what to eat and when and how. The next thing that happens is that your metabolism adapts to this.

Your metabolism understands your behavior but not the way you think.

When you stop eating, your metabolism doesn’t understand “we have enough reserves, we can let them go and survive on less intake”. What your metabolism understands is “uh oh, there isn’t as much food available out there as there used to be. We might not have enough reserves to keep us alive. Lets hold on to the stores of fat for dear life.” This is the reason why diets stop working. After a while, you’re metabolism goes into survival mode, or what’s known as starvation mode.

So what to do to avoid that?

The only thing you can do is listen to your own body. Eat when you’re hungry, stop eating when you feel you’ve had enough. This is, of course, easy to say but not necessarily easy to do. I am not going to get into the complexities of doing this in this article, although I plan to revisit this subject in future posts.

So you start doing this and your body adjusts and feels comfortable and starts working its way to its ideal weight. Wow! Isn’t that fantastic! The body and weight you ever wanted and eating as much or as little as your body needs…

Your ideal body might not be what you expected.

It’s not fantastic.

The truth is that your body’s ideal weight might not be what you had in mind. It might not be the body you always dreamt of, that magical bmi of 22. Damn, it might not even be in the “normal” range. The fact is, as I said before, each person is different and each body is different and your metabolism doesn’t care about Quetelet’s social physics of Key’s bmi. Your metabolism needs fuel for your body to be at its healthiest and that might be at a size that is not trending on the covers of Vogue and Cosmopolitan. Yet those are the bodies we thrive for.

Diet, exercise, whatever it takes, right? Indeed, specialists estimate that at least 50% of people who enrol in diet systems such as Slimming World or Weight Watchers suffer from some sort of eating disorder. These people might already be at their ideal weight, the weight determined by their own bodies, and not know it. They might even be under that weight and still be unhappy about it. The truth is that reaching that number might not be what makes you happy. Actually, achieving any number on the scale won’t make you happy.

I’ve been there.

And this is where I can share my own experience. I’ve been many weights, including that perfect bmi 22 and I wasn’t any happier. There was always something wrong. I didn’t feel any more confident then. I walked down the street and I still was worried about what people might think of my big thighs or my tummy or my arms. No more and no less than I worry now, when my bmi is almost double than that. The reason is that I didn’t accept myself at that weight. I couldn’t, because I couldn’t accept myself at any weight because I will never look like Jennifer Lopez or Lawrence or whoever it was who was trending back then.

The only way I have found to accept myself is to understand that my weight doesn’t define who I am. I am much more than my size or my shape. Accepting myself for who I am, regardless of what I look like, has helped me in the way to recovery and that’s the reason why, as I stated before, accepting yourself, your uniqueness, is key, if not the single most important step you can take to get out of the hole that is an eating disorder.

I’d like to say that getting to that point is easy, that after years of self loathing, one day everything clicks into place and the light shines at the end of the tunnel and you got it. Sadly, it’s not the case. If you feel like you have a problem with your eating, you struggle, do ask for help. Don’t follow methods given to you online. I could give you a step by step guide right now of what I’ve done to get this far and it might not help you. The steps alone wouldn’t have been enough for me to get as far as I have come now. If you feel you have a real problem, see your GP, find a specialist. It’s definitely the best decision I’ve made.

This article has also been published in the Life Therapies website.

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