Monday, January 25, 2010


There was a news report on TV recently that said that the number of dangerously obese Americans climbed from 15% to 35% in the last 30 years. This is a shocking number, and is worth commenting on.

First of all, I agree that more and more Americans (and it seems to be unique to our country's culture-- probably a confluence of a number of things, not the least of which is the sheer excess that defines us) are overweight, and many dangerously so. Without a doubt, this is a culture-wide problem, and one I will say more about in a moment.

But I also need to say this: I think those numbers are inflated-- and maybe greatly so. That's because they are based on the concept of the "Body-Mass Index" or BMI, which is a simple calculation based on your height and current weight. BMI is widely-regarded as an accurate measure of fat percentage, and medical science has determined that higher fat percentages are strongly connected to all sorts of health problems.

But BMI is not as accurate as a measure of body-fat percentage in many people. It is a formula developed in the mid-1800s, and people's body shapes, diets, and lifestyles were very different then. It assumes things like an average proportional body-build to height, which simply doesn't apply as people vary from the average heights (which, by the way, were very different 150+ years ago). In the mid-ranges of BMI, studies have shown that it fails to distinguish between fat and lean body mass. BMI is a popular tool among "the masses" even though it doesn't seem to be taken very seriously by doctors and health professionals; maybe this is because of our obsession with morbid thinness as a culture. One study concluded:

Although body mass index (BMI) has been adopted by WHO as an international measure of obesity, it lacks a theoretical basis, and empirical evidence suggests it is not valid for all populations.
A. Bagust and T. Walley, An Alternative to Body Mass Index for Standardizing Body Weight for Stature, Q J Med 2000; 93: 589-596.

How do I know this? Because BMI always calculates me as way outside of the categories that I should fit into. At my current weight, it categorizes me as obese. Now, I freely admit that I am overweight, and I am working on making corrections on that. But I'm not obese, according to my physician. In fact, if I lost all of the weight that I'm aiming to lose, BMI still shows me being overweight-- though my physician has told me that he doesn't think I need to lose any more than I've targeted. (BMI has my ideal weight at 210 pounds-- almost 80 pounds less than I am now.)

So I think we need better formulas informing us about obesity. But I still think it is a problem-- and it's one that Christians don't take seriously enough.

In a culture that is simultaneously increasingly obese and also obsessed with an unrealistic and unhealthy concept of "thin" as beautiful and ideal, one way that Christians could-- and should-- be counter-cultural (and culture-transforming) is to exhibit proper moderation in the way we think about food, weight, and body size. We should stop comparing ourselves to the magazine covers, TV and movie personalities, and other worldly icons; we should start comparing ourselves, and our current health and eating practices, to what is healthy and beneficial.

You want to know where I see this as most realistic? Witness the typical church dinner. Whether it is catered, a covered dish/"pot luck" situation, or something else, these seldom offer much in the way of healthy options. What if the next dinner at your church offered baked chicken instead of fried chicken? What if there were rice or roasted potatoes instead of mashed or au gratin? What if there were no desserts?

Outrageous... inconceivable-- I know.

When I first started seminary, one of my professors was new, also. He clearly-- obviously-- lost a fair number of pounds in the first couple of semesters. Not so many that he seemed too thin or gaunt, but he had shed 20 or 30 unneeded pounds. I asked him about this, and his response was, "there is a lot of positive peer pressure on the faculty here. It's a real culture of encouragement toward being healthy." Wouldn't it be great if most churches could be like that-- not pressure to be too thin, nor prejudice against those who are overweight, but simply a culture that encourages healthiness?

What do you think: what are some ways that your church could shift toward being a culture of health?

No comments:

Post a Comment