While the title of the article is a bit misleading, Americans Are Gaining, but ‘Ideal’ Weight Keeps Shrinking presents some interesting history:
Sixty years ago, Metropolitan Life Insurance created the first widely accepted charts setting ideal weights for American men and women. ‘Overweight is so common,’ the company declared at the time, ‘that it constitutes a national health problem of the first order.’
I didn’t realize “overweight” was a noun, and I didn’t realize it was already a national health problem sixty years ago.
Naturally, “ideal” weights have changed over the years.
Until the early 20th century, however, an extra 10, 20 or even 30 pounds of flesh was considered a sign of robust health — a buffer against so-called wasting diseases, such as tuberculosis. In her prime, the actress Lillian Russell, after whom the “American Beauty” rose was named, weighed 200 pounds. During his presidency, which started in 1909, William Howard Taft weighed more than 300 pounds.
A few thoughts:
- Until the early 20th century, an extra 10, 20, or even 30 pounds of flesh probably meant you were almost as big as a trim 21st-century American. And if you were a farmer or laborer, it might have been lean mass.
- Lillian Russell was not 200 pounds in her youth, and she wore a corset. That tends to shift the extra weight to where it’s welcome.
- Taft did not look good at 300 pounds, and he was the butt of many jokes.
In 1941, for example, an average 5-foot-10-inch 35-year-old man weighed about 171 pounds. Metropolitan Life’s weight chart for men, published in 1943, set the desirable weight for that man at 159.
By 1963, the average 5-foot-10-inch 35-year-old man weighed 169 pounds. Luckily for him, Metropolitan Life had just revised its weight charts, resetting his ideal weight to 165, six pounds heavier than the 1943 charts.
In 1983, Metropolitan Life again revised its charts to reflect new health and mortality data. Desirable weights were raised for most people, roughly two to eight pounds depending on height and frame size.
Interestingly, I’d never read the history of the body-mass index before:
While some health professionals still use Metropolitan Life’s weight charts, many others have begun using another gauge of fat: body mass index, a stricter measure for many people. Developed by a Belgian statistician, Adolphe Quetelet, in the 19th century, the formula (weight in kilograms divided by the square of one’s height in meters) in 1998 became the U.S. government’s official standard of healthy weights. Using the new definition, an additional 25 million Americans instantly qualified as fat or obese. Today, about 97 million adults in America are considered overweight.
One of my fitness goals was to reach a BMI of 30 — technically obese — at single-digit body-fat. Technically, a six-foot, 221-pound bodybuilder has the same BMI as a six-foot, 221-pound couch potato.