How to Determine an Ideal Weight

Even doctors who specialize in weight and eating have a hard time determining the ideal weight for individuals in their care. This difficulty does not stem from lack of knowledge, but from an under­standing that weights vary widely among individuals.

Today the consensus among professionals who specialize in eating disorders is that assigning weights to people according to insurance company charts (which was done for years!) makes as much sense as assigning heights according to a chart. It is now generally acknowledged that insurance chart rates are based on averages and that nobody in par­ticular seems to fit them. Consequently, doctors take into account height, bone structure, and healthy lev­els of body fat to evaluate the right weight for a per­son. Or, after taking a patient's medical history, a doctor may be able to establish her set point, or natural range within which her weight might be expected to fluctuate. To establish a set point for yourself, the best advice is to eat normally and exer­cise moderately. After a period of maintaining this natural pattern of eating and exercising (it may take up to a month for people whose eating has been dis­ordered), your body will settle into a weight range that is healthy for you.

Body Mass Index (BMI)

Another weight guideline that has gained popularity and which doctors feel is more valuable (and safer) than weight-and-measurement charts is the Body Mass Index (BMI).

The BMI is a ratio of weight to height that, when calculated, produces a key number that indicates if a person is within a healthy weight range. The BMI is found by multiplying your weight in pounds by 703, mulitiplying your height in inches by itself, then dividing the first number by the second. BMIs from nineteen to twenty-five indicate a healthy weight. However, this form of measurement can't be viewed as absolute (any more than weight-and-measurement charts can) because it doesn't take into account muscularity or bone density. For exam­ple, a large-boned or muscular person may have a BMI that reads "too high" but that is actually healthy; someone who has smaller bones and less muscle weight may have a BMI rate that looks healthy but is actually too low.

Nevertheless, the BMI is viewed by health pro­fessionals as a valuable measure of body composi­tion because it correlates highly with body fat in most people.

An additional measurement is waist circumfer­ence, which can provide additional guidelines either for those who are extremely fit and muscular or for those whose light frame and overabundance of fat may fool the BMI. The waist circumference is measured around a person's natural waist (just above the navel). A waist circumference of 35 inches or more for women, or 40 inches or more for men is considered to indicate overweight, no matter what the BMI.

Physicians, however, are more concerned with other indicators of health, such as measurements of blood pressure and cholesterol, and with habits such as smoking and exercise, than they are with ideal weights. Increasingly, it's becoming clear that Americans' ideas about beautiful bodies are market-driven instead of based on sound health.

Some specialists on eating disorders consider the ideal weight one that can be maintained comfort­ably without diet restrictions. This should appeal to a lot of people who are tired of worrying about their weight!

Of course, within that definition, it is possible to be truly too fat or too thin—that is, so heavy or so underweight naturally that body functions are impaired. A physician is the best judge of this. Doctors who have not been negatively influenced by the media's preference for and idealization of slim bodies probably won't be concerned about under or overweight as long as cholesterol, blood pressure, and blood chemistry are within normal ranges. But when any of these indicators enters the danger zone, weight definitely becomes an issue, especially when other risk factors such as smoking or a family history of eating disorders and related problems is present.

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