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Ask Dr. Gourmet

How to calculate the Body Mass Index of an athletic man?

First of all, this site has saved my life in the kitchen, as my mom is diabetic, recovering well from a stroke but now on Coumadin (warfarin). I have told nurses and all my friends about this site. Thank you from our hearts.

Could you please tell me how I can calculate the Body Mass Index of my husband? He is an athletic person with a muscular body and you have said that the regular Body Mass Index would not apply to people like him.

Dr. Gourmet Says...

a man and a woman, both very fit, exercise with dumbbells

We know that obesity is a major problem and one way that we track this is the Body Mass Index (BMI). It is not a perfect measure, however. It's used because of how simple and inexpensive it is to collect the data for research purposes. We use it as an indirect measure of body fat.

What we most care about is central adiposity (belly fat to most of us). There is now tons of research to show that obesity with a large waist circumference is as important (or maybe more important) than BMI. Waists greater than 40 inches for men or 36 inches for women are considered a risk factor for diabetes and heart disease. The ratio of waist circumference to hip circumference (WHR) is something we use as well.

If your husband doesn't have a high WHR or waist circumference, and his other risk factors are good, he should be OK. He can get an good estimate of body fat in a number of other ways. One is the use of a set of specialized calipers that measures fat on different parts of the body. Physical therapists and personal trainers commonly use these. There are also good quality body weight scales on the market that can indirectly estimate body fat percentage as well.

The International Journal of Obesity defined acceptable body fat percentages. Here's the table to help:

Description Women Men
Essential Fat 10 - 12% 2 - 4%
Athletes 14 - 20% 6 - 13%
Fitness 21 - 24% 14 - 17%
Acceptable 25 - 31% 18 - 26%
Overweight 32 - 41% 27 - 37%
Obese 42%+ 38%+

If your husband is concerned, ask his doctor to recommend a physical therapist or personal trainer to assess him.

Thanks for your nice words about the Dr. Gourmet web site. It means a lot to all of us here at Dr. Gourmet.

Timothy S. Harlan, MD, FACP, CCMS
Dr. Gourmet