In the Metro today a boy of 5, sweetly outraged of face, displays the object of his indignity: a letter from the NHS.
The letter informs his parents that, at 3 st 13 lb and 4ft tall, Bailey Russell is dangerously overweight.
Bailey’s size looks ‘normal’ to me, so I went to nhschoices.com to check out the child BMI calculator. Online, the NHS places Bailey in a healthy weight category (90th centile). There is no numerical reference range given for child BMI. However, further down the page, a colour chart places an arrow for Bailey firmly in the ‘overweight’ area.
Computers and humans do get confused, but Bailey’s mum is outraged. We don’t need this kind of thing in our judicious society, she says.
Should we blame the NHS for being too bolshy in the first place? Note that in 2005, the WHO put the obese population at 1.6 billion people. In 2015 – just ten years later – this is set to top 2.3 billion.
The science of weight is very tricky. Bailey’s story reveals a problem that no government health department in the world has managed to solve. Amid all the finger pointing, there is no proper system for measuring overweight. We carry on using Body Mass Index even though we know that it often does not correlate with the amount of body fat and the risks to health.
Heart disease and diabetes are the world’s most expensive non-infectious diseases. If we are going to make a difference, it has to be in finding better ways to measure the problem – methods adapted for different populations of adults and children.
As importantly, leaders need to admit to the public that the best experts in the world have trouble assessing overweight from the outside.This needn’t give people an excuse to ignore clinical norms in weight-related health risks. Rather, it should inspire us to do some independent thinking – asking ourselves if our bodies reflect the healthiest, happiest choices we can make.