Where are you on the global fat scale?


Americans tend to be obsessed about how they look, especially their weight. Now there is a tool to further feed that obsession for those who may have wondered how they might compare if they happened to live in another country. When you insert your personal data into this global body mass index calculator, it returns your own BMI along with the ranges of BMI for 177 other countries in the world,

It turns out that the US is sixth in average BMI, being beaten by Micronesia, Tonga, Croatia, Samoa, and Argentina. I was wondering what it might be about these small Pacific islands that might cause three of them (rank 176, 178, and 173 respectively out of 193 countries in terms of population) to rank in the top four.

I have not been to any of these countries and so have no first hand experience but my wife who has been to Argentina says that she would never have guessed that they ranked above the US because she saw hardly any overweight people there, unlike what she sees here. This should serve as a warning that using our personal impressions (which are always based on small and usually unrepresentative samples) to infer the characteristics of entire populations can lead to wildly erroneous conclusions.

Comments

  1. Onamission5 says

    That was interesting. It said that even though I am what one might consider “pudgey” at a glance, I have a lower BMI than 70% of US women in my age group, and am comparable to someone from Honduras.

  2. Eric says

    BMI is a misleading, if not meaningless, judge of obesity. For athletes in their prime or anyone with above average musculature, using the scale can classify you as obese. A better, albeit much more time intensive, study would be to get body fat caliper measurements on a sample of the populations.

  3. Eric says

    Along these lines, I believe that people from the Pacific Island region tend to be more short and stout (not necessarily fat, but muscular), and this could explain why they scored so high (low?) on the BMI scale.

  4. says

    I typed my info in for the hell of it and I figure I’ll point out the ranking is dependent on the sex and age you give. So for 18-25 males argentina is below the US for example. So your wife probably wasn’t wrong in general.

  5. Black Antelope says

    If I remember my A-level geography correctly, the islands are something to do with the fairly recent introduction of western diets and cheap fast food into a population which had before had been very low fat.

    A google search gives this source: http://www.maxwell.syr.edu/uploadedFiles/moynihan/dst/curtis5.pdf?n=3228 (Jour.Dev.Soc.Transformation)

    Don’t know anything about Argentina. (wiki doesn’t mention it, and while google keeps coming up with a law to remove unhealthy food from classrooms, nothing obvious about why its such a problem)http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Epidemiology_of_obesity

    That BMI thing really shocked me, since it says I have a lower score than the average person in the DRC. I mean, I knew I was underweight, but I’m not anorexic or anything. Stupid messed up metabolism.

  6. left0ver1under says

    It doesn’t even have to include body fat measurements. If one has a good resting heart rate, blood pressure and low cholesterol measurement, it’s a good general sign of health.

    Regarding fat testing, I don’t know where you live, but I had my bodyfat tested last year. Bioelectrical impedance analysis, as it’s called, sends an electrical current through your body and tests for resistance. It’s supposed to be combined with a water tank measurement for greater accuracy, but it’s a quick and easy test, more accurate than callipers.

  7. August Pamplona says

    BMI is a misleading, if not meaningless, judge of obesity. For athletes in their prime or anyone with above average musculature, using the scale can classify you as obese.

    Sure, but for whole populations, as presented here, it’s more than good enough. For instance, the average BMI of someone from the US is not higher than the average BMI of someone from North Korea because Americans are more athletic. The average BMI of someone from the US is higher than the average BMI of someone from North Korea because Americans are fat and North Koreans are starving.

    For that matter, even skin fold based estimates have issues of their own because they rely on population based assumptions which actually vary not only across individuals but also across ethnic/racial groups (the latter would be relevant for a study like this –though I suspect that it would still be a better measure than BMI even if the difference between the two would probably not matter).

  8. Black Antelope says

    I think we all know how bad a measure BMI is (the simplistic of it, and the mere fact that muscle outweights fat make it obvious), but for a mass-appeal app like the BBC one, it is acceptable approximation for people of average build. This is something that needs no equipment, and two measurements that people are likely to know about themselves.

    Surly the BBC’s aim in this is to get people talking and doing things about being over-weight, not to provide an accurate self-diagnostic tool.

  9. August Pamplona says

    Bioelectrical impedance analysis, as it’s called, sends an electrical current through your body and tests for resistance.It’s supposed to be combined with a water tank measurement for greater accuracy, but it’s a quick and easy test, more accurate than callipers.

    I would absolutely dispute this statement about it being more accurate than calipers. Bioelectrical impedance has serious issues of reproducibility, as far as I know.

  10. Eric says

    Everything I’ve ever read has said that bioimpedance measurements are less accurate than calipers.

  11. says

    The whole point of BMI is that it’s a simple way to study populations of people, so this is a perfectly valid usage.

    True, BMI was not intended as a guide for individuals unless unique circumstances are taken care of (very muscular athletes might have much lower body fat percentage than their BMIs indicate, and at the other extreme, very thin elderly women might have much higher body fat percentage due to their very low overall muscle mass).

    BMI is very easy to calculate so it’s simple to apply on a national level with limited data, and while their are outliers, it is a perfectly valid tool when used to study populations.

  12. says

    Sure, but for whole populations, as presented here, it’s more than good enough. For instance, the average BMI of someone from the US is not higher than the average BMI of someone from North Korea because Americans are more athletic. The average BMI of someone from the US is higher than the average BMI of someone from North Korea because Americans are fat and North Koreans are starving.

    North americans don’t have to be “fat” to have a higher BMI than starving people. The point of the calculator is clear to me, its a way for some people to feel superior to others. An international average height map would show all kinds of variations (and again starvation would be one of the only ways to realistically adjust the numbers), but it would be totally meaningless to most people. Most people do not think that height is a moral issue, but they do believe body size is. Most people believe that eating a certain way and exercising a certain amount will result in a lower BMI, but there is little evidence to support that claim. Changes in BMI in individuals that are artificially imposed almost never last, and its not because people are weak or stupid. Even radical surgical changes to the human digestive system (weight loss surgeries) usually leave people obese.

  13. August Pamplona says

    North americans don’t have to be “fat” to have a higher BMI than starving people.

    Americans don’t have to be fat (why the scare quotes, by the way?) to have a higher BMI but they are. This applies to all the other populations. The amount of BMI variation due to a country’s population being more or less athletic is too small to be worth considering.

    The point of the calculator is clear to me, its a way for some people to feel superior to others.

    Okey dokey.

    An international average height map would show all kinds of variations (and again starvation would be one of the only ways to realistically adjust the numbers), but it would be totally meaningless to most people.

    There are a couple of economists who are known for proposing that average adult height be used as a proxy for quality of life inasmuch as quality of life affects nutritional status during development and that in turn affects adult height (by the way, Americans do not come on top). I don’t know how accepted this is. Intuitively it doesn’t make sense (since common wisdom would hold that genetic variation would swamp this effect) but, apparently, the fit is much better than what most would think.

    Most people do not think that height is a moral issue, but they do believe body size is.

    Since when has this turned into a moral issue?

    Most people believe that eating a certain way and exercising a certain amount will result in a lower BMI, but there is little evidence to support that claim. Changes in BMI in individuals that are artificially imposed almost never last, and its not because people are weak or stupid. Even radical surgical changes to the human digestive system (weight loss surgeries) usually leave people obese.

    What we are talking about here is no longer BMI because the goal should be that a given individual lose fat, if overfat. Fat loss is a very complex issue. Despite fat loss being very complicated it still all revolves around eating fewer Calories than one expends. All failures (and successes) in fat loss strategies come down to that. Every single one. Even bariatric surgeries are examples of this: people adjust (for instance, constant snacking can get around the imposed physiological constraint of a diminished working volume in the stomach and a lot of calories can be packed into liquid foods –think ice cream).

    So while it’s true that eating a certain way and exercising don’t work most of the time this is not so because of, as some would suggest*, genes (at least not with most populations –specifically the one in the USA) but rather because eating a certain way and exercising is rarely maintained over the long term.

    The magical fat people who defy conservation of energy simply do not exist no matter what someone like Gary “I pick cherries” Taubes might suggest to the contrary.

    * I am not going to suggest that skeptifem is one of these people but, in fact, many people do try to make this case. While this can be somewhat applicable to some individuals, the position is simply not tenable as an explanation of why obesity rates change in whole populations.

  14. Eric says

    I would be careful to not suggest that all calories are created equal. A fat calorie is not the same as a carbohydrate calorie or a protein calorie. You can consume over 100% of the caloric requirement of your body and still lose fat, if your diet consists of the right proportions of fat to carbs to protein. This is why fat loss is so complex, and not as simple as ‘calories in = calories out’ as you went on to imply in the next sentence.

  15. Marlo Rocci says

    Yay
    “You have a lower BMI than 82% of males aged 45-59 in your country ”

    Boo
    “You have a higher BMI than 51% of males aged 45-59 in the world ”

    I need to go to the gym more often. Its basically is saying americans are too damn fat.

    On a serious note, though. Obesity is our nation’s most serious avoidable health problem. Using the relative tiny minority who are too thin as a wedge to ignore the real problem is going to get people killed. Everyone who scored more than 50% in the global scale should join me at the gym.

  16. August Pamplona says

    I would be careful to not suggest that all calories are created equal. A fat calorie is not the same as a carbohydrate calorie or a protein calorie. You can consume over 100% of the caloric requirement of your body and still lose fat, if your diet consists of the right proportions of fat to carbs to protein.

    Oh yes, the much vaunted metabolic advantage of ketosis proposed by the likes of Atkins.

    Sorry, none of that makes a difference in practical terms.

    As for this metabolic advantage, somehow, in a nice parallel to so many studies of woo phenomena, the effect goes away with the better quality studies. If you control the calories well, you will see greater weight loss in short duration studies with the ketogenic diets. This weight loss advantage goes away in longer duration studies. The reason is because fat loss does not equal weight loss and ketogenic diets produce greater initial weight loss but not necessarily greater fat loss. If the Calories are the same and you are providing sufficient protein, macronutrient composition simply does not seem to matter that much for fat loss.

    If doing it (whatever it is) helps you eat fewer Calories, it will work (at least for as long as you keep doing it).

  17. says

    The major reason why Atkins style diets show large initial weight loss is because carbohydrates are the preferred (i.e., most efficient) energy source for many activities. Consequently, at the front end of the diet all of the glycogen stored in the liver and muscles gets used up. And for each gram of carb, three grams of water are stored with it. So for the first few weeks you wind up burning up all the stored CHO and flushing out the H2O which leads to weight loss. Completely unsustainable, though. And once it’s gone you’ll have a lack of energy for anything requiring even minimal athleticism.

    You can’t cheat the energy balance equation.

  18. Anat says

    So while it’s true that eating a certain way and exercising don’t work most of the time this is not so because of, as some would suggest*, genes (at least not with most populations –specifically the one in the USA) but rather because eating a certain way and exercising is rarely maintained over the long term.

    Well, metabolic differences between individuals (differences that may have their roots in genetic or epigenetic differences) influence how long it takes them to be hungry again on a certain food regiment, so while the proximal cause is not maintaining a certain way of eating over the long term, at least part of the underlying cause is genetic, or more likely – epigenetic.

  19. SusanP says

    It rounded my BMI up to the next whole number…almost made me cry into my Lean Cuisine.

  20. Aliasalpha says

    “You have a higher BMI than 100% of males aged 30-44 in the world”

    I’ve got you beat there mate. Worst part is I’m already at the gym regularly!

    As an aside: Fuck you BBC, that seriously dented my confidence!

  21. says

    Sure, but for whole populations, as presented here, it’s more than good enough.

    #define SNARK
    Sure, because in science, a metric that you just made up is better than no metric at all.
    #undef SNARK

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