We’re Number One! And Gaining

Belly FatWhich is the fattest of the fifty, the most obese of these United States? The winner–they certainly didn’t do any losing, did they?–is (drum roll)…

Mississippi, which weighed in at 35.2% of its citizens obese. (Pun intended.)

My own home state of Missouri came in tenth at 30.9%. The other 8 in between these two were (in order) West Virginia, Louisiana, Arkansas, Oklahoma, Alabama, Kentucky, Indiana, and Iowa, all of them with roughly one-third of their inhabitants tipping the BMI trigger for obesity.

We’ve already mentioned that BMI is a notoriously imprecise tool for measuring appropriate individual body weight, but as a tool in the aggregate, it’s much more acceptable. Why? While we might find individuals who are so muscular that their BMI records them as obese when they are actually in great shape–LeBron James being a poster child for this category–those people tend to be the exceptions. Show me a hundred people in the obese range of BMI and you’ll probably find that the vast majority of them have earned that label.

On the other end of the scale–another intentional pun–we find that Hawaii (19%) is the least obese state. What I find troubling is that some of the states with the highest concentration of evangelical Christians are also the most obese, while several states that are notoriously lacking in evangelicals (New York, California, Connecticut, Massachusetts) are all in the least-obese ten. Why is that?

Certainly we cannot blame this steady loosening of the belt throughout the Bible Belt on pot luck dinners. So what is the reason? Are Christians simply so focused on other-worldly things that they can’t push back from the table? Are we totally failing on that whole “prayer and fasting” thing?

All kidding aside, if there is an actual connection between obesity and evangelicalism (and it’s not just a coincidence of geography), then Christians should really be taking a hard look at themselves–especially the middle of themselves–in the mirror. We don’t need to look like fitness models, but we can’t do our best work for the Lord carrying around all that extra tonnage.

Risking the S-Word

ScaleIn a recent post at Desiring God, Lindsey Carlson shares her thoughts about weight loss as it relates to spiritual life. The key thing that struck me–although the entire essay is worth your time–was the nerve that Carlson demonstrated in using the dreaded S-word. Yes, she referred to her excess weight as the result of sin.

While not everyone’s additional pounds are directly linked to sin, I know many of mine are. Historically, I’ve gone through seasons of facing my sin directly, and other seasons where I’ve completely avoided dealing with it and allowed indulgence to rule the day. However, this past year, I’ve experienced a measure of victory both in my heart and, perhaps in smaller measure, on my bathroom scale.

Too often in our society, we avoid labeling anything negative as the result of sin. Identifying something as sin requires judgment, and you can’t utter a (negative) value judgment without being reminded to “judge not lest you be judged.”

Of course, those who will spout off Matthew 7:1 have no problem with positive judgments. It’s perfectly fine in their moral economy to praise, for example, successful weight loss. Constructively criticizing overindulgent weight gain, on the other hand, cannot be labeled as sin.

If a gained pound, a smoked cigarette, a drained beer, or a watched porn video  cannot be the product of sin, then what are they? An awareness of the pervasiveness of sin in this world and, more to the point, in our individual lives stands as a powerful first step to gaining some measure of mastery over that world and those lives.

The Failure of False Compare

ScaleHaving recognized that the Bible does not provide any answer to the eternal question, “How much should I weigh,” we have been touring a list of potential sources of answering that question. Having explored the scale, BMI, body fat percentage, and friends, we are yet to encounter a useful source for the secret number. Today, I have a source that will surely lead us to the promised land.

Here’s how to determine your perfect weight. It’s a simple process that will require only a couple of simple tools. (I am assuming that you are male, but this process can be easily adapted to a woman with the substitution of a single tool.) Here’s how to do it.

  1. Weigh yourself on a bathroom scale.
  2. Look at a photo of a person who weighs the ideal weight. I might use this photo.
  3. If you look more fat than this person, then your ideal weight is lower than your current weight. If you look less fat than this person, then your ideal weight should be higher.
  4. Repeat this process until you look like the person in the picture. That is your ideal weight.

Is this not a path to madness? Everyone who reads this will see the folly of determining your ideal weight based on a picture from a magazine, right? Yet isn’t that what a lot of people tend to do? We compare ourselves to some unrealistic, probably airbrushed photo of a swimsuit model, professional athlete, or other incredibly buff person, and then we feel like failures when we can’t achieve their level of buffness.

Why can’t you use one of these beautiful people as your yardstick to the perfect weight?

First, you probably do not have the genetic makeup to achieve that sort of body type. There’s a reason these people wind up on magazine covers. If you can look that great, congratulations, but expecting yourself to look that great is a sure path to disappointment.

Second, even if you do have the genes, you might well not have the time to put in at the gym. As much as you might want well defined ab muscles, I am confident that no one’s ideal weight requires the “six-pack.”

Third, comparing yourself to someone else typically does not lead to good results. It might lead to envy or resentment. It might, if you choose a particularly unchallenging object for comparison, lead to underachievement: “At least I’m not as fat as Bubba!” If you’re going to emulate anyone, it should be Jesus, but we don’t know how much Jesus weighed.

Comparison, my friends, is not the answer, and it has perhaps the most troubling outcomes of any of the sources we have considered yet.

 

The Foibles of Friends

ScaleHow much should you weigh? We have been attempting to answer that question through several posts recently, looking at the failures of bathroom scales, body mass index, and body fat percentage. None of these tools can give me a number that says, “This is what you ought to weigh.” Of course, we got into this problem because the Bible is annoyingly silent on the issue.

I’d like to suggest one more less-than-helpful source for an ideal body weight: friends. The problem with friends is that they don’t necessarily see you in the way that you need to be seen. Some of them may have been duped by the pseudo-science of BMI or the unhelpful but legitimate science of body fat percentage. Some are just plain wrong. They might even be right, but how would you know?  After all, if a friend has some magical tool to divine the proper weight for you, shouldn’t you cut out the middle man and employ that tool yourself?

About six months into my weight-loss effort, a very good friend of mine, someone who I know had my best interests at heart, solemnly told me, “No more. You’re looking gaunt.” At that moment said that, I weighed about 192. Eventually I’d get down around 183 for a solid six months, and during that six months, I felt great.

Another friend, might push you to lose more weight. Unfortunately, the one most likely to suggest that you keep peeling off the pounds will often be the romantic partner. “You’ve lost 25 pounds. That’s a great start,” he or she might say. As a husband, I have to look at my wife and recognize that she should weigh her weight and not some fairy-tale weight that I imagine.

Of course, I am not ignoring the fact that a friend or spouse can help me to avoid becoming complacent at too high a weight or obsessively pushing to a too-low number. Friends can push us to see things about our own bodies that we might otherwise pass over. Still, your friend is not the best source for deciding what that ideal weight might be.

Surely there’s a better way. Perhaps there is, but it’ll have to wait for another time.

The Frippery of the Scale

ScaleRecently, I’ve been exploring the sources of information that might help me know precisely how much I ought to weigh. We’ve already discovered that the Bible just doesn’t give us any real indication about how much weight a Christian should be carrying around. In the absence of inspired counsel, we’ve looked at both BMI and body fat percentage and found them lacking to one degree or another.  It’s at this point that I am supposed to unveil the perfect tool for knowing your own ideal body weight. But, as fate would have it, I don’t have such a tool just yet. Instead, I want to spend a moment considering the tool most people use: the scale.

The scale requires no math, unless you consider doing the simple subtraction (or addition) that will quantify your weight loss (or gain) for the week. It doesn’t require any fancy or expensive equipment. If you don’t own a set of bathroom scales, you can go to any of a dozen big box stores and pick a perfectly accurate scale up for less than $20. My scale, which cost about $15, measures in increments of two-tenths of a pound. That means that it is claiming to record weight changes as little as 3.2 ounces. In other words, drink a half cup of water, and my scale should be recording the change, all for $15. Given that it will last virtually forever, that’s a pretty good bargain.

So what’s wrong with using the scale to tell you what you ought to weigh? Hopefully the answer to that is obvious. Does a tape measure tell you how big your bedroom should be? Does a speedometer tell you how fast to drive?  Measuring tools are good–imagine this–for measuring. The scale can tell you to remarkable accuracy, how much you do weigh, but it will shed absolutely zero light on how much you should weigh.

Unfortunately, some people allow the number on the scale to be a great deal more meaningful than it really is. As I’ve shared elsewhere, at my highest, I weighed 244 pounds. When I fluctuated upward, late last year and neared 200 again, the idea of crossing that threshold really bothered me. But really, is the difference between 199 and 201 really bigger than the difference between 189 and 191? Psychologically, yes, but in absolute terms, no.

The numbers on the scale are, of course significant, but they aren’t magical. The only reason why 200 seems like a big deal is because it’s a round number. What if you were weighing in kilograms? Would you wait until you reached 100 kg (or 220 lbs) to feel fat? Hopefully not.

What if a pound were 15 ounces, instead of 16? In that case, my last weigh in at 191 would be mathematically transformed to 203.7. How depressing. My weight would be the same, but the number would bother me.

I am not suggesting that we should toss our scales out the bathroom window. A scale is useful for measuring, and numbers, even somewhat arbitrary ones, can help us to get motivation. But the numbers on your scale cannot tell you how much to weigh.

At some point along the course of your life, that scale will, at least theoretically, read out the ideal number for you. It will do it with no more fanfare than it reads out a too-high or too-low number. We’ll have to look elsewhere if we want some useful guidance.

The Fat Fixation Fallacy (Body Fat Percentage)

ScaleMy daughter told me a tale, told second hand, from her gym. According to this account, a young woman went to the gym with her (idiot) boyfriend. At the gym–a much swankier place than mine, apparently–she had her body fat percentage tested. She came out at 8% body fat. When this was announced, the boyfriend supposedly said, “You have a lot of work to do.”

That’s how eating disorders and neuroses get started, I think. As we continue to consider methods for answering the question, “How much should I weigh?” we’ll take up body fat percentage next.

Body fat percentage is a fairly straightforward metric for your weight, involving a good deal less arithmetic than BMI. How heavy should you be? Body fat percentage can give you a pretty good idea.

How do you calculate it. It’s simple: First, weigh yourself. Let’s say you weigh 150 pounds. Then take all of your fat out and weigh it. We’ll say you have 45 pounds of fat. Divide the fat pounds by the total weight (45/150) and you get 30% body fat. Now be sure to put that fat back in. Leaving it out is cheating!

Obviously there’s a problem there. We can weigh ourselves easily enough, but weighing our fat is a bit tougher. The more accurate methods for doing that (at least on a live body) are also the more difficult or expensive. For example, you could use a body fat caliper for less than $10, but its results will not be nearly as accurate as underwater weighing or biometric impedance measurements. But can you manage to do either of those methods on your own? No.

Let’s assume that you can accurately measure your body fat percentage. Where should it be? The number for men should be considerably lower than that for women. Female athletes will typically have 14-20% body fat while male athletes will be in the 6-13% range. That suggests that the bonehead boyfriend at my daughter’s gym didn’t have a clue what he was talking about. A woman with 8% body fat is probably in an unhealthy weight range.

So how heavy should you be using body fat percentage as a guide? Let’s assume that want to have an athlete’s build. You could determine a weight at which your body fat would come in at, say, 16% for a woman or 10% for a man. For example, maybe a man discovers that 162 pounds yields that magical 10% figure. But what’s magical about 10% for a man or 16% for a woman. The “athlete” percentages might cover a weight range of 8 to 15 pounds for an average woman or man. That’s something like 98 to 106 pounds for an athletic woman or 160 to 175 for an athletic man. You can see that we’re not getting a great deal of certainty with this measurement.

Body fat percentage is a useful tool and certainly far superior tool to BMI, but it does not give us that magical number of “How much should I weigh?” At the same time it can lead us into making an idol out of the number, which we can already do on the bathroom scale.

The Folly of BMI (Bad Measurement Instrument)

ScaleHave you ever had a doctor or nutritionist or some stranger on the street calculate your BMI? In my previous post, I indicated that I would be exploring some of the sources of guidance we might draw upon since the Bible is so woefully negligent in telling us anything about just how much meat we can carry around on our frames. Today, I’d like to explore BMI or Body Mass Index.

Developed by Adolphe Quetelet, a Belgian scientist (but not physician), in the first half of the 19th century, BMI was an attempt to describe the relative heaviness of people. In the metric system, you take the weight (mass) of the person in kilograms and divide by the square of the person’s height in meters. To use English measurements, we divide the person’s weight in pounds by the height in inches (squared) and then multiply by 703. There the formula looks like this:

BMI = (pounds/inches²)x703

In my case, it would be worked out like this for my current weight of 190 and height of 5′ 11″.

26.49=(190/71*71)x703

My BMI of 26.49 places me pretty solidly in the overweight classification, which ranges from 25 to 30. In order to reach the top of the “normal (healthy weight)” range, I’d have to drop another 12 pounds, reaching 178.

In reality, at present, I could probably stand to lose at least 5 and maybe 10 pounds, but I hardly feel as if such loss is essential. I would agree that getting myself to 178 might have me in the “healthy weight” range, I feel confident that such a loss isn’t necessary to barely reach an acceptable place.

What is wrong with BMI? Plenty. Let me give a simple case study. Omar Infante is the 2nd baseman for the Kansas City Royals. His height is listed as identical to mine, 5’11”. His weight is 195. Therefore Infante has a BMI of 27.2, considerably higher than mine. Are you going to suggest that I have a healthier body composition than this man who is able to deftly turn double plays at a major-league level? Look at any photo of Infante and you’ll have to agree that he’s not the pudgy designated hitter body type. Does he seem healthy? Obviously.

BMI measures one thing, height vs. weight. It does not take into account the frame size of the individual. Somebody with an even higher BMI than Omar Infante is basketball star Lebron James, who comes in at 27.4. Is Lebron overweight? Hardly. He’s a big man and carries a lot of muscle. BMI does not distinguish between good weight and bad weight. It makes no distinction between muscle and fat.

I’m hardly the first to note the measurement’s flaws, but despite years of such criticism, BMI is still widely used, mostly, I would guess, because it is so simple to calculate.

Quetelet was a sociologist, not a physician. His interest was in populations rather than individuals. If you take BMI measurements for a few hundred people in Cleveland and a few hundred people in Nairobi, there might be some useful conclusions to draw from the findings. But BMI is not a terribly useful measurement for individuals, except that it provides doctors with a club to wield on their heavier patients: “Well, your BMI of 30.3 indicates that you are obese!”

To measure individuals using such a population-oriented tool is somewhat like measuring the sin of an individual in comparison with a population. If my SMI (Sin Massiveness Index) is low enough in comparison to those around me, then I can just go into maintenance mode, right? And if my SMI is higher than those around me, then I should feel like a terrible person. Have you ever been in a church where people seemed a bit complacent with their SMI? Or met people who felt unworthy of their church because of their particular SMI? That’s no way to think about your holiness. BMI, while not quite so poor a measurement, is wrong in a similar way.

 

The Right Weight

Scale“Where the Bible is silent, we are silent” has long been a slogan among a certain slice of the Evangelical world. While my own tradition does not come from that slice, I admire the idea behind such silence. A church should not, I think, take adamant stands on matters on which the Bible does not speak. For example, what does the Bible say about the use of tobacco? Nothing! Since tobacco is a New World plant, it would have made very little sense for the Biblical writers to share something that would not come onto the scene for another 1,300 years. A church can get by perfectly well without expressing a position on tobacco.

On the other hand, an individual cannot live life with a silent position on many matters on which the Bible is silent. For example, if I am pulled toward smoking–which, happily, I’m not–then I have to either determine that it is acceptable or reject it. To do that without trying to discern God’s will would be foolish.

What does the Bible say about weight? How much body fat should I carry around with me according to Paul? Search all you want, but you’ll find no clear answer to that. The Bible neither praises nor condemns fat people or thin people. It does have a fair amount to say about gluttony, but that’s not precisely the same thing. I can be a glutton today and still keep a lean body if I watch my eating the rest of the week.

I say this as I have been watching the scale tick downward over the last several weeks. A year ago, I held my weight between 180 and 185 for about eight months. Then I bounced up to around 195 in the wake of some very stressful times. For the past eight months, I’ve been between 188 and 196. When I last weighed in, I tipped the scale at 190.6. Hopefully, a few more steady weeks will have me back in the 185 range.

But I ask myself, how much of my desire to see a certain number on the scale is vanity and how much is good stewardship. Since the Bible is silent on this matter of weight, where do I turn for guidance? I’d like to look at some possibilities in upcoming posts.