The number on the scale can only tell you so much about a person's health.
In a deleted scene from Sunday’s episode of Keeping Up With the Kardashians, we learned that a short woman weighs a small amount. When you put it that way, it doesn't sound so shocking, right?
Here's how it actually unfolded:
Khloé tells friend Simon Gebrelul, “You know she’s 97 lbs.?” about her older sis Kourtney.
“Guess what? I gained a pound,” Kourtney chimes in. “I’m 98.”
Perhaps forgetting that Kourtney stands a mere 5 feet tall, reactions on Twitter ranged from “OMG I want to be her” to “OMG that can’t be healthy,” with a sprinkle or two of “OMG why is this news?”
In a way, everyone's kinda right.
“People aren’t used to seeing weights under 100 pounds, and I think that’s triggering for a lot of people,” says dietitian and educator Claudia T. Felty, PhD, RD. In general, she says, we all need to take a deep breath and a big step back from being so quick to judge others by the numbers on their scales.
Aside from it simply not being a friendly thing to do, “the number on the scale tells us very little about the overall health and wellness of a person,” says certified eating disorder registered dietitian Marjorie Nolan Cohn, RDN. “Bodyweight is just one (relatively small) variable we use to determine someone’s overall health and disease risk. It doesn’t tell us anything about one’s genetic risk factors, cardiovascular health, immune health, bone health, or hormonal balance.”
The number on the scale also varies greatly with our own individual packaging, so to speak—which in Kourtney's case is small. She revealed in a 2015 Instagram post (which also garnered lots of commentary about her weight) that she is only 5 feet tall. While 98 pounds may be unimaginable for most of us non-Kardashians, it’s not outrageous for someone of this size. “Depending on bone structure, muscle mass, and genetics, a range for healthy women of 5 feet could be anywhere from the low 90s to the 120s,” Cohn says.
Reshmi Srinath, MD, director of the weight and metabolism management program at the Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City, says she typically looks at a person’s BMI or body mass index rather than just the number on the scale—and even those don't provide a perfect measure. “BMI is a standardized measure of height compared to weight, and using that, I can characterize someone as normal weight, underweight, or reaching obesity,” she explains.
Current guidelines suggest that someone with a BMI over 25 is considered overweight. Over 30 and you're considered obese, while you'd fall into the underweight category if you clock in under 18.5. At her height and weight, Kourtney comes in at a low but still healthy 19 or so, Dr. Srinath says. But someone who has a lot of muscle mass—which weighs more than fat and would therefore raise BMI score—could be easily miscategorized as obese, Cohn says. Meanwhile, someone with very little protective muscle mass could be classified as meeting a healthy weight, despite a greater risk for certain conditions.
Emerging research suggests that measuring a person’s waist circumference and comparing it to the size of her hips—the waist-to-hip ratio—may be even more telling. “We know that people who have greater waist circumferences have greater risk of heart disease and metabolic syndrome,” says Dr. Srinath, also an associate professor of endocrinology, diabetes, and bone disease at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai. That’s because it’s the so-called visceral abdominal fat (otherwise known as belly fat) that seems to pose the biggest risk to our health.
Felty recommends ditching the scale entirely. “I focus on intuitive eating, becoming more in touch with your own body,” she says. “I look at energy levels, food and exercise behaviors, and use that intuitive process to learn what your body needs, which often helps stabilize weight naturally.”
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For everyone who was quick to judge Kourtney’s weight—or anyone’s, for that matter—remember that every person is unique. “We all have different curves,” Dr. Srinath says, and a fair amount of curviness comes from genetic factors, meaning it’s out of your control. Whatever your weight is, don’t spend another second comparing it to Kourtney's.
“Look at our furry friends,” Felty suggests. “We would never expect a Chihuahua to look like a St. Bernard. We have different genetics, different builds—we’re all individuals.”