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The Myth of the Ideal Body: What Are the Real Costs?

The Myth of the Ideal Body: What Are the Real Costs?
Dr. Constance Odom, MD Picture of Dr. Constance Odom, MD

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Written by our editorial team.

Last Edited 7 min read

Over the last few decades, the American body type has changed drastically (at least, where weight is concerned). In the last 20 years, men, on average, have gained approximately 15 pounds to create a new average of 195.7 lbs. For women, the shift has been a little more substantial, coming in at 16.7 lbs. for an average weight of 168.5 lbs. While you may want to claim that men and women are taller or bigger-boned today than 20 years ago, that is not the case. Men and women havenât had a correlating jump in height along with weight. The average male is at five feet nine inches while women average about five feet three inches. Changes in weight gain are also noticeable by certain age categories, with women between the ages of 20 to 29 averaging almost 20 pounds heavier than 20 years ago.

The Staggering Costs of Obesity

As weight has shifted to a yearly national increase, there has been greater attention to the health-related concerns of being overweight or obese. While the individual suffering from excess weight deals with debilitating health concerns, the annual health care costs of obesity-related illnesses in the United States total approximately $190.2 billion. This overwhelming figure is about 21% of all yearly medical spending in the nation. Businesses lose millions in productivity as individuals are unable to fulfill their duties or report each day for work because of medical conditions related to their weight. Struggling businesses stifle the economy, both at the community and national levels. Not only that, but community programs, healthcare facilities, medical practitioners, and taxpayers often bear the most costs when it comes to battling obesity-related illness or disease. Disability and unemployment benefits are expenses that have to be paid to assist those who are unable to work because of their weight.

The Personal Cost

The financial costs of a growing waist size are just one facet of the problem. There is a tremendous personal cost with being overweight. As seen with the rising national average, the ideal body type may not be so ideal after all. To look like everyone else means coming dangerously close to being categorized as overweight. Excess fat leads to serious health conditions, most notably, a significant increase in heart disease. In the United States and around the world, heart disease is the number one killer of men and women. Being overweight can also contribute to type 2 diabetes, some cancers, musculoskeletal disorders, and a weakened immune system. It can cause lethargy or poor energy, interrupted sleep patterns, and problems with mobility.

The Financial Cost

For those who struggle to achieve an ideal weight, many poor lifestyle choices are blamed on finances. Most common complaints are that itâs too expensive to eat healthy, or there is no room in the budget to join a gym. While it is true that changing certain aspects of an unhealthy lifestyle may cost money, it is nothing compared to the expense of treating or managing symptoms of pain or chronic conditions that accompany being overweight. In fact, if you consider the orlistat price (a prescription pill designed to enhance weight loss) it is significantly cheaper than a month supply of the multiple prescriptions needed each month to keep oneâs health in check. Insulin, blood pressure medication, cholesterol medication, pain medication, and so on add to a huge financial drain. Not to mention the lost funds from an inability to work or having to call in sick.

The Startling Perspective on Body Composition

Because of social culture, many confuse body image with body composition. Throw in body type and everyone is left scratching their heads. The average weight doesnât define a healthy body image or a healthy body composition. Body image is how a person views themself in light of what they look like. As society has watched the average weight continue to climb upwards, there are more campaigns and programs encouraging individuals to accept what they look like and embrace being who they are. Though this can help from a mental health perspective, it does little to address the fact that there is a problem when body composition continues to get out of balance. A personâs body type refers to the general shape and characteristics of their physical makeup, often falling into a generalized category. Again, just because there are millions of individuals who have the same body type doesnât mean that it is a healthy position to be in.

What the Science Says

People can say what they will about an ideal body image or type, but science has everything to say about the ideal body composition. Though a number canât give you an accurate picture of health, it does represent how well you are taking care of your body. Doctors and medical experts use charts and graphs to create standards definitions of good health, and weight is evaluated by your body mass index. This is also known as your BMI. As a measurement, it calculates your weight against your height, looking for a proportionate distribution. This isnât a fool-proof representation of your body fat, but more of a way to assess your overall weight and body composition.

Body fat can be measured, though it often requires expense testing methods and some of them are not accurate. Medical assessments include hydrostatic weighing, 3-D body scanners, dual-energy X-ray absorptiometry, and air displacement plethysmography. Since very few people have access to this type of equipment, body fat is used assessed through skinfold calipers. You can do this on your own, though you would need to purchase a skinfold caliper. Various skinfold thickness around the body is measured, usually by grasping a fold of skin and the subcutaneous fat then pinching it with a caliper and taking a reading within two seconds. The thighs, chest, and abdomen are three of the most common sites assessed.

Body Fat Percentage

The BMI calculations are based on height and weight, and for the most part, there are three categories of numbers. Calculations that fall between 18.5 to 24.9 are considered a normal weight range, though climbing higher on the scale starts to develop an unhealthy weight. Numbers that fall between 25.0 and 29.9 are considered overweight, and anything over 30.0 is considered obese. While the goal is to have a bodyweight that falls within the normal range, this doesnât guarantee that your body composition is healthy. Weight that develops around the weight instead of the hips increases the risk for type 2 diabetes and heart disease. These risks increase as your waist expands beyond 35 inches for women or 40 for men. Anytime your weight falls close to overweight or into the obese category, it indicates your body composition is moving further away from a healthy state of being.

The Simple Truth

For some individuals, there is an idea that body composition doesnât matter as long as they have a positive body image. It is true that you can be overweight and still be body positive, but your perspective has little bearing on how healthy and risk-free your life actually. Science and medical experts know how important it is to maintain a normal weight range if you want to achieve the best quality of life possible. If you have found that your BMI places you in the unpleasant categories of overweight or obese, weight loss programs and lifestyle changes can help you get back on track.

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This article is for informational purposes only and does not constitute medical advice. The information contained herein is not a substitute for and should never be relied upon for professional medical advice. Always talk to your physician about the risks and benefits of any treatment. Nu Image Medical may not offer the medications or services mentioned in this article.