By Dr Harry
When I think of Belgium – that small country nestled between France and Germany – I naturally think of chocolates from master chocolatiers. Go back over 175 years and we find a man named Adolphe Quetelet who was rather keen on making measurements. In fact, he was so interested in finding out the relationship of one variable compared to another that he founded the Royal Statistical Society.
Around the same time Monsieur Quetelet published a book where – amongst other things - he described a man’s weight in relation to his height in his quest to find values for the “average man”. This book, published in 1835 was called A Treatise on Man and the Development of his Faculties and was focused more on sociology than public health. It certainly was never intended to be used as a measure of obesity!
Fast forward to America in 1912, where insurance companies were looking at the relationships of height and weight and their effect on life expectancy. The idea being that if your weight is too high in relation to your height, this might indicate excess fatness and hence be a health insurance risk. These were called standard height-weight measurements and simply measured the height and weight of people of various ages (when they made insurance applications).
Other statistical tables relating insurance risk to body weight were created by the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company (MLIC) of New York in 1942. These tables showed what was a desirable weight for a given height. There were different tables for men and women.
The MLIC updated and revised these tables in 1959 and 1983. To make up for the fact that weight may vary depending on your body frame, some estimate of this was included in the tables so you could classify yourself as having a small, medium or large frame. This would obviously help “big boned” individuals.
Again, none of these, at the time were designed with obesity as a public health issue in mind but scientists made later use of the charts for studies and research programs.
Other metrics have been examined and have been put to the test over time. These include a “ponderal index” which is cube-root of weight divided by height. These measures have been examined with various populations. The body mass index (weight divided by height-squared) was a term coined by researchers in 1971 and has been used ever since, but this was originally suggested by Quetelet, so you may see it referred to as the Quetelet index.
In 1997 the World Health Organization published guidelines on the interpretation of BMI values in relation to overweight and obesity. These were very similar to the 1959 MLIC tables.
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