Oprah’s Yo-Yo Weight, BMI Misclassification, & Fat-Muscle Ratio

Did relying on BMI measurements cause Oprah to fall victim to yo-yo dieting? Perhaps — if we’re to follow the findings of a new study published April 3 in the journal PLoS One.

Best known for her blockbuster talk show, African-American billionaire Oprah Winfrey has been called “arguably the world’s most powerful woman” by CNN and Time.com.

For a time the world’s only black billionaire, she’s also definitely one of the most influential persons of the 20th century. Her story of triumph against overwhelming odds — born into poverty in rural Mississippi to a teenage single mother, raised in an inner-city Milwaukee neighborhood, raped at age nine, getting pregnant at 14 and having her son die in infancy, but going on into wealth and fame — will continue to inspire thousands of people across the world.

Immensely successful as a talk show host, actress, producer and now media owner, she’s often praised for overcoming adversity to become a benefactor to others.

But there’s one struggle that she seemingly hasn’t overcome — that’s the one against obesity. Throughout her career, Oprah’s yo-yoed from 140 lbs to 200 lbs and back again and she’s been very public about what she calls her struggle against food addiction.

But could the culprit be less complicated than an addiction? Could it be that she was simply using a wrong measure of her body fat — and consequently going on the wrong ways — weight loss — to become fit? Is losing weight the wrong approach for overweight and obese people like Oprah?

With the United States and the rest of the developing world thick in the middle of an obesity crisis, that’s a million-dollar question. And the answer is: maybe.

That is, according to the new study by researchers from the New York University School of Medicine and New York’s Weill Cornell Medical College.

The study suggests that while the body mass index — the formula used to distinguish between healthy and unhealthy weight — has been used for 180 years, it may be incorrectly classifying people as having healthy weights when their body-fat composition shows that they are really obese.

According to the study, BMI misclassified up to 39 percent of participants, allowing them to fall under the “overweight” category when they are actually “obese.” BMI misclassifies about half of women and just over 20 percent of men, the study claims.

BMI is a simple calculation based on a person’s height and weight that gives a score used to diagnose obesity. A person with a BMI of 30 or more is classified as obese — and public health authorities like the U.S. Centers for Disease Control use this measure to find out how many Americans are obese.

Right now — based on their BMIs — at least one in three Americans are obese. As the rising numbers of obese Americans is causing threatening to bring on a looming burden of disease in the next few years, health experts are scrambling for better ways to measure the fatness — also a measure of nation’s state of health and way to judge the success or failure of treatment programs.

But relying on BMI leads people to on-off weight loss programs. In an interview with the Los Angeles Times, researcher Dr. Eric Braverman claims the widespread use of BMI was “feeding the failure” of public health policies and treatments aimed at fighting obesity.

If medical interventions had encouraged patients to shift their body composition toward lean muscle mass — instead of focusing on losing weight — there would have been less fat people, Dr. Braverman believes.