I have a problem with the BMI (body mass index).
I have always been what society would consider slim. My mother was 5’6 and fine-boned, and my father was a slight 5’4 Filipino man, so it started with my genes. As a tween and a teen, I was called “skinny” and “bones,” even though I ate like a field hand. I was very active in gymnastics, riding and caring for our horses, bike-riding, and running around with my friends. So in addition to my genetics, my metabolism ran high.
Through my twenties and thirties, I adopted a macrobiotic diet that helped clear up my acne and helped me overcome asthma. I no longer practiced gymnastics but taught aerobics, lifted weights and became a runner. I also took up ashtanga yoga and tai chi. Fitness helped me manage my stress, boosted my energy and mood, and helped me sleep like a baby. It also made me strong, but an added benefit was I remained slim.
After having a baby at age 40, I became more curvy and carried what some might consider an unhealthy amount of extra weight. My post-breast feeding boobs never returned to 34B, my waist shrank very little after carrying a 10 lb baby, and other parts of me packed some fat on top of the existing muscle from decades of fitness.
I am a whole food plant-based vegan and love food – I love the flavors and aromas, creating and cooking meals, bringing together a community around the dinner table, and socializing over happy hour. Food is a celebration of nurturing myself, my family, and my friends. Food represents abundance and all that is well in my world. Feeding people is my love language.
When I worked as a health coach for Whole Foods Market, they offered a yearly biometric screening to employees. The screening measured your BMI, blood pressure, and cholesterol levels. If you fell within their optimal range, you qualified for an increased employee discount in the stores. Starting with the automatic 20% discount, you could be eligible for up to 30% in a tiered system called silver, gold, and platinum levels.
I never qualified. While my cholesterol and blood pressure were always pristine and in the platinum range (my doctor said I had the labs of a teenager), my BMI never surpassed bronze (20%). I was stuck at a BMI of about 24 and never reached the 18-22 range. It was incredibly frustrating. It felt like a moral failing.
My actual day-to-day job was to help employees aim for platinum. Some of them did, while most of them were like me. A handful of the more crafty team members tricked the system. They would go on starvation diets leading up to the screening to lose weight and lower their BMI. Some would drink Natural Calm, a magnesium drink, just before the blood draw to reduce blood pressure. If they had decent cholesterol levels, to begin with, then it was easy enough to get the BMI and BP to platinum, get the increased discount, only to return to their regular habits.
Whole Foods CEO John Mackey was smart – literally dangling a carrot for employees to reach these goals, hopefully making them healthier, keeping them out of the doctor’s offices, and simultaneously controlling company-paid insurance costs – win-win, right?
Here’s the problem: A considerable portion of the employee population at Whole Foods is black and Hispanic, particularly those who work back of house and at the distribution centers.
The BMI ascended from the Eugenics movement. It was created in the 30s by a Belgian mathematician (NOT a physician) named Lambert Adolphe Jacques Quetelet. It was a test to determine the size of the “average man.” In the mathematical study, all the participants were Western European men.
In the 70s, a dietician named Ancel Keyes and his colleagues determined the BMI calculator as the best way to determine obesity, and since then, it has become the medical standard. It has become the international model for determining “healthy” weight.
By this measurement, though, most elite athletes would be classified as overweight because the test doesn’t account for the difference between muscle mass, bone density, and body fat.
The BMI study from the 30s did not account for all body types and completely ignored the natural differences between people of various ethnicities, genders, and ages.
To this day, the BMI disregards black and Hispanic people’s bodies. And women are not part of the equation – women who’ve birthed multiple humans or older women during their menopausal season.
One of my dear friends is of Hawaiian and Samoan descent. She is a dark-skinned beauty with Asian eyes, high cheekbones, and gorgeous black hair. She is also 5 foot 9 with large bones and an appropriately proportioned booty. She is healthier than most people I know. Yet, if we judged her by the white European male BMI standard, she would be considered obese and flagged as a medical liability.
And it’s worth noting there are skinny humans with the perfect BMI, but their hearts, livers, and other organs malfunction due to stress, cigarettes, alcohol, and all sorts of things, so they are NOT healthy even though their BMI would deem them so. In addition, there are plenty of people who fall into the category of “obese” but who have excellent blood pressure, cholesterol levels, and regular blood sugar.
In many underserved communities, you’ll find statistically “obese” citizens with heart disease and diabetes. They also have constantly elevated cortisol levels from life stress and fat shame. Cortisol can cause one to pack on the pounds and influence cholesterol and blood pressure. We can trace this back to its racist origins.
I am not trying to justify obesity. But I am wary of calling people obese when they do not fall into the medically accepted body mass index standard. We need to look at other factors. If you are concerned about heart health, the basic rule is to measure waist circumference. Your waist should be no more than half your height. But even then, ethnicity and other factors can influence that standard. Here is an easy way to check.
As a health coach and educator promoting a whole-food, plant-based diet, I am conscious of the fine line between promoting health and promoting an unhealthy diet culture. While I have experienced an incredible health transformation going plant-based in my 20s and have helped many clients reverse their chronic diseases, going whole-food, plant-based is not bullet-proof. I’ve worked with clients with pristine whole-food, plant-based diets suffering from high blood pressure, chronic headaches, and chronic pain due to stress and other lifestyle factors. More alarmingly, I’ve met a few influencers disguising their eating disorders with a whole food plant-based diet.
Skinny does not equal happy. I repeat, skinny does NOT equal happy. Being skinny often yields misery and unkind people. People can be healthy and happy at all sizes. We must embrace this idea fiercely and fight against unhealthy stereotypes, particularly for women.
I am an ethical vegan and often am at odds with the militant plant-based influencers demonizing processed vegan foods and oils. It’s true; these foods are more calorie-dense. And processed foods typically contain more salt, sugar, and oil. But no current scientific data is determining that these foods will kill you. Many vegans are not eating this way for health or weight loss, but out of compassion for animals.
I encourage my clients who want to go vegan to consume the vegan versions of animal products over non-vegan ones. They ARE better for their health (even if they are not “health foods”), better for the animals’ health, and significantly better for the planet. You can still achieve optimal health while including these foods as part of a whole-food, plant-based diet. The first foods to avoid and omit are meat, dairy, eggs, and seafood, period.
So, let’s stop shaming others. Let’s stop pointing fingers and judging each other’s choices. Instead, let’s embrace, support, and encourage one another as we all strive to eat more plants.
In terms of BMI, lets aim for health, vitality, self-love, and a Best Me Image!