my friend the fatty

My good friend and colleague, Jim Sollisch, wrote this essay for The Chicago Tribune. It’s a great read and worthy of sharing. Not only is Jim a brilliant writer that is continually published in some pretty major dailies, but he is also one of the best cooks I know. An invitation to his house for dinner is just as good (if not better) than some of our best restaurants.

It’s official, I’m a fatty
According to body mass index, you may be obese and not know it
By Jim Sollisch
December 3, 2007

Hi, my name is Jim, and I’m overweight. Apparently I’ve been living with this condition for a lot longer than I knew. I’ve heard of women who don’t know they’re pregnant until their seventh month. That’s how I feel. You see, I always thought obese people had trouble going up the stairs or fitting into a chair. I thought obese people were fat. Now I know they don’t have to be. Now I know obesity is an invisible disease, hiding inside people who look normal. People like me.

I’m 49 years old. I work out five times a week, playing squash and basketball and lifting weights. I can beat my taller 22-year-old son one-on-one. I wear size-34 jeans. (Of course, I have to admit they are “loose fit” and may, in fact, be bigger). Women still look my way. I have a beautiful, very non-obese wife. No one I know would describe me as overweight (except my very bald brother), but according to a recent health assessment I took as part of my office’s effort to control insurance costs, my body mass index indicates that I am overweight.

I am 5 foot 9 and weigh 187 pounds. Which, that assessment says, makes my BMI 29. Obesity begins at 30. So technically, I’m just really, really fat. The health assessment says my target weight is 156, a number I haven’t seen since I was 16. My BMI puts me at risk for coronary disease and heart attacks. Never mind the fact that I have a cholesterol score a vegan would covet and the blood pressure of a marathon runner. I don’t take any medications and haven’t had a sick day in 15 years. My BMI has spoken, and I’m a fatty.

Until I knew I was obese, I felt fine. Now I’m a stressed-out wreck. My blood pressure has gone up. I’m craving fried, fatty foods. For the first time I understand the phenomenon psychologists call the labeling effect. Studies show that when you tell students they’re not very smart before a test, their performance goes down. I never understood how that was possible. Until now.

My self-esteem is a mere shadow of its former self, even if my body isn’t.

The good news, if there is any, is that I’m not alone. The National Institutes of Health report that 35 percent of American adults are obese. Of course, we have no way of knowing how many of those 35 percent are really fat and how many are suffering invisibly like me. BMI is an inflexible measure. Now I’m not saying that all my body mass is muscle, but if it were, my BMI wouldn’t change.

Ditto if I had a really huge frame with mastodon-size bones. BMI is a calculation based solely on height and weight.

The last thing I want to be is an apologist for obesity. Obesity is a killer, a huge risk factor for diabetes, high blood pressure, heart attacks and a life of misery. But if we label every slightly large-framed, semi-muscular, middle-age man obese, we make light of the problem. Sort of like we’ve done with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder. Now that every kid has it, it’s hard to know who really has it. So it’s time for the invisible majority to stand up and say no to the BMI. Do it out of concern for your really obese brothers and sisters. Refuse to be weighed. Or refuse to have your height taken.

Either measurement is fine, just not both.

6 Comments

  1. Anonymous
    Posted December 5, 2007 at 3:14 pm | Permalink

    As someone who in the last year has gone from a BMI of “morbidly obese” to merely “overweight,” and losing just over 100 lbs, it’s really great to read that someone else is seeing this issue in this light! I’m healthy now and I look more-or-less “normal” but the label still sticks. I never thought of the issue quite this way, and it’s true that the label is a self-fulfilling prophecy of sorts. Thanks for posting this!

    -M

  2. michelle v
    Posted December 5, 2007 at 3:20 pm | Permalink

    Wow – good for you for losing 100 lbs, that’s great! Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

  3. rockandroller
    Posted December 6, 2007 at 9:02 am | Permalink

    I’ve had an “overweight” BMI for a couple of years now. I ran three
    5Ks this year, never eat fast food, avoid processed/junk foods, work out regularly and almost never get sick. But yep, I’m a fatty too.

  4. Maverick
    Posted December 6, 2007 at 12:37 pm | Permalink

    According to the BMI, Lebron James is overweight and nearly obese. It’s a good tool, but can’t be used across the entire population.

  5. JeffreyT
    Posted December 6, 2007 at 5:32 pm | Permalink

    Absurd. I feel fat too all of a sudden.

  6. Skeezix
    Posted December 7, 2007 at 9:12 am | Permalink

    I’m another one who is verging on obese, which like the author of the article makes me laugh. I’ve long felt that BMI was a poor indicator of health, again it was one of those dumb health insurance forms that enlightened me to my near obesity.

    One of these times I’ll just attach a photo from one of my triathlons to the damn form as a big ‘fuck you’ to the insurance companies.