This morning I went running into my housemate’s room in a frenzy. An NHS watchdog had announced that there’s a risk of carrying excess weight around your middle if your waist size is more than half your height. So, obviously, I had to check: ‘Have we got a tape measure?’
Together, with four hands and two pairs of eyes, we navigated my body with a retractable metal tape, and established that, according to the new guidance, I’m healthy – just. Seven more centimetres on my middle and I would have been facing a problem.
For context, the average woman’s waist size in the UK is 33 inches, while the average height is 5’3. ‘I don’t think my waist size was ever half my height, including when I was in my 20s and size 12-14!’ wrote one woman on Twitter.
‘Horrible week to have an eating disorder,’ added an NHS clinical nurse. ‘A healthy weight is different for EVERYONE and you can’t generalise like this. It’s lazy science and won’t help anyone.’
The watchdog who outlined the new waist to height ratio rule (The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence) recommended the formula to people whose body mass index (BMI) was under 35 (30 is obese). For reference, my BMI is 23.9 and 25 means you’re overweight – at least, according to that system.
But there is no magic formula for good health and there are infinite ways the body can be composed. Have we forgotten that muscle weighs more than fat? Many personal trainers have been classified as obese according to BMI calculations.
The problem is, the height-to-waist ratio ‘rule’ – and the government’s wider Better Health strategy – appears to be based on a one-size-fits-all approach to health – which by its very nature can’t fit everyone. After measuring my waist this morning, although I was just healthy enough according to that measurement, I looked at my bowl of granola differently and put off writing this piece so I could go on a 5k panic run.
I’m currently what I consider a stable size. The only time I’ve been smaller I was either a child or eating two apples for lunch and soup for dinner while an eating disorder gripped me through my early twenties. Currently, I mostly eat a balanced diet and exercise three to four times a week, but the intrusive thoughts about being thinner are still there.
Calorie counts on menus, waist-height calculations, or BMI recommendations that leave grey areas around the intricacies of what a healthy body truly means, aren’t the answers to tackling type two diabetes, high blood pressure or heart disease. In fact, they can exacerbate issues for those with eating disorders and actively drag the joy of eating from most social interactions.
Food is intrinsically linked to emotion. Whether an assertion of control through calorie counting or a search for comfort in a big bowl of nuggets, what’s on our plate is as much about mental wellbeing as it is about physical health.
The UK needs an approach to under and overeating that prioritises compassion and recognises it’s impossible to address obesity without mental health being at the forefront of treatment. To yell from the roof tops that a certain number of inches indicates you’re taking up too much space in the world is bullying and regressive. We’re not on a 90s diet show.