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BMI Is A Widely Used Health Standard, But Is It A Good One?

Photo of a weighing scale.
Photo of a weighing scale.
Peter Dazeley/Getty Images

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When you go to the hospital, it’s standard procedure for the doctor to calculate your BMI - your weight in kilograms divided by your height in meters squared.

Body Mass Index is widely used as a health metric, both by medical professionals and insurance companies to calculate risk or a patient’s eligibility for certain procedures, but it’s long been a controversial standard. While some researchers say that BMI might be useful to assess the overall health of a population, it’s much less useful as an individual indicator of health and is a bad predictor of metabolic health. It can be problematic if a doctor is using BMI, an inaccurate measure of body fat, as a proxy for whether a patient is healthy or not. 

There is also debate about its usefulness for different races and ethnicities, especially since the standard is based on a white European male. In fact, the WHO released a different BMI interpretation guide for people of Asian descent. 

What is the history of BMI and its pros and cons? Are there ways that BMI can be used differently? Or should it be nixed altogether?


Jamy Ard, M.D., clinical researcher and professor of epidemiology and prevention at Wake Forest School of Medicine; co-director of the Wake Forest Baptist Health Weight Management Center; he tweets @drard

Sabrina Strings, associate professor of Sociology at the University of California, Irvine, where her research interests include the sociology of medicine; author of “Fearing the Black Body: The Racial Origins of Fat Phobia” (NYU Press, 2019); she tweets @SaStrings