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COVID-19 Weight-Gain Assessment: BMI vs. Body Fat vs. Waistline

October 07, 2020

For three months earlier this year, Connecticut gyms were closed and people spent more time inside their homes, with “quarantine baking” a popular pandemic pastime. Sales of candy, carbohydrate-rich foods and alcohol soared since stay-at-home orders were issued at the onset of the COVID-19 outbreak.

While many people joke about putting on the “Quarantine 15,” a WebMD poll showed that adults in the United States gained an average of 8 pounds since the beginning of the pandemic.

If you’re concerned about weight gain, here are several tools that can help you determine what a healthy weight range is for you.

Numbers on the Scale
“Penny scales” began appearing in pharmacies and grocery stores in the U.S. in the 1880s, giving people the opportunity to measure their weight outside of a doctor’s office for the first time.  In the early 1900s, bathroom scales became widely available, and turned weighing from a public to a private event.

In 1943, the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company created a chart of “desirable weight” ranges for small, medium and large body frames.  Frame size was determined by measuring the space between the two large bones in the elbow, and weight ranges were based on data collected by life insurance companies that indicated the weight of people in each frame size who were at the lowest risk of dying.

While numbers on a scale are still commonly used to determine whether a person’s weight is “healthy,” researchers have developed more nuanced tools to paint a better picture of a person’s overall health, as well as their risk of weight-related medical issues.

Body Mass Index
Body Mass Index, or BMI, is a ratio of height to weight.  It was originally developed by a Belgian statistician in the early 1800’s, but it wasn’t until the 1970’s that it became widely used in the U.S. to determine if a person was underweight, normal weight, overweight or obese.

While BMI can be a useful guideline, it’s limited by the fact that it doesn’t distinguish whether weight is coming from bone mass, muscle or body fat, and it also doesn’t take the distribution pattern of the weight into account.

Body Fat Percentage
In 2000, the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition published a study showing that Body Fat Percentage (BFP) was a more accurate measure of health than BMI because, unlike BMI, BFP measures the weight that comes from fat.

BFP is thought to be a more accurate indicator of health than BMI because weight from excess fat is more likely to increase the risk of health conditions such as heart disease, high blood pressure and diabetes than weight that comes from bone or muscle.

Waist Circumference
Waist circumference assesses how body fat is distributed, and is a helpful tool since abdominal fat is more likely to increase the risk of heart disease, diabetes and other diseases than fat that’s stored in other areas.

You’re at an increased risk of obesity-related health complications if you’re a man with a waist circumference of more than 40 inches, or a non-pregnant woman with a waist circumference of more than 35 inches.

To measure your waist circumference, place a tape measure around your body just above your hip bones, and measure the circumference of your waist just after you exhale.