The jury’s still out on the best way to measure health. Photo: Tristain Pollard, CC, theterrifictc. Edits: Jaclyn McRae-Sadik.
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We need to be more critical when it comes to how we gauge our physical health

The debate over Carleton removing scales from its gyms is raging on—but that’s not what I want to talk about.

Whether or not that was a good move has already been debated ad nauseum online, but it does bring up a larger discussion on how we think about health in general.

As a society we could all benefit from being more critical about how we measure our physical health in general. With a plethora of options to measure our health, from our weight to the girth of our muscles and beyond, there’s a lot to examine.

Perhaps the most talked about measure of health today is called Body Mass Index (BMI), which is calculated by comparing a person’s weight and height. Despite the fact that BMI tends to be known as a trusted way of measuring how healthy people are, it’s far from perfect.

For example, it can misclassify someone who’s simply muscular as overweight. It can also categorize a person as healthy when they have a concentration of fat in the wrong place.

The scariest thing is just how much this measure is trusted, even though it is marred by serious flaws. And despite the fact that it was invented in the 1800s BMI is still trusted by the likes of physicians, governments, and drug companies.

The legitimacy of BMI is even brought into question by organizations like the Centers for Disease Control, who note on their website that “At an individual level, BMI can be used as a screening tool but is not diagnostic of the body fatness or the health of an individual.”

Even the way we define obesity should be examined with scrutiny.

One study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition notes that the definitions of overweight and obesity have changed over the years, leading to confusion in how information is presented to the public, both in scientific and lay publications.

And while a variety of literature exists on this area of health research, there is still a debate over how to properly define obesity.

The same can be said for how we look at nutrition. For example, there has been controversy in Ontario as the province is adding calorie counts to menus. While intended to better inform customers, it seems the reform could just sow more confusion.

Not only do people not have a good intuition of what a given calorie count implies, but it turns out many of these counts may be wrong anyway, as original methods of measuring calories have been called into question. And some people might be better served looking at totally different markers, like sodium.

In this light, we need to be more critical of the methods we use to measure health, especially since different people have different goals, from getting a good summer body to training for a powerlifting competition.

The bottom line here is that, despite what people might think, there is no perfect way to measure how healthy we are. There are commonly used methods, sure, but they all have their flaws, and people need to bear that in mind.

As individuals we should be skeptical and, as a society, we should seek more information and context when it comes to different measures of health.