If you grew up in the ’80s and ’90s, you’re all too familiar with the lasting effects of diet culture and the often-overstated emphasis on weight. That’s why it was so refreshing to hear that, in June, the American Medical Association finally adopted a new policy deemphasizing the role of BMI (a.k.a. body mass index) in clinical settings.
For those unfamiliar with BMI, it long reigned supreme in the health sphere as a metric indicative of a person’s health. Put simply, BMI is a ratio of weight to height that is attained by dividing a person’s weight in kilograms by their height in meters squared. The issue with this basic calculation? “While BMI can be useful when looking at large populations of people, there are many scenarios in which it doesn’t predict good health,” says Rekha Kumar, M.D., a New York City-based endocrinologist, obesity medicine specialist, and the Chief Medical Officer at Found. “BMI only says how big somebody is; it doesn’t differentiate between muscle mass, bone mass, and fat mass.”
Bodybuilders, for example, might have a BMI that categorizes them as obese even though their low body fat percentage and quality nutrition might make them relatively healthy. On the flip side, certain ethnic groups often develop metabolic diseases at a BMI considered normal for the Caucasian population, Kumar adds. “For example, South Asians and East Asians tend to develop diabetes at body mass indexes that are considered normal for the rest of the population—another reason BMI is not a great indicator of health,” she says.
Instead, there are a number of other health metrics that ultimately offer more value than BMI. In particular, monitoring these key metrics over time—instead of taking a single snapshot—can be the most helpful for understanding someone’s state of health, notes functional nutritional therapy practitioner Tansy Rodgers, F.N.T.P. Here, experts break down a few vital health metrics worth paying attention to.
1. Blood glucose levels
Most people associate high glucose levels with diabetes, but unbalanced blood sugar levels are also connected to other health issues, including heart disease, autoimmune disorders, Alzheimer’s, and even cancer. Knowing your fasting blood glucose levels is important, according to Rodgers. “Your fasting blood glucose level gives you a snapshot of where you are at as a whole; you want to aim to be below 99 mg/dl,” she says.
Looking at post-meal blood glucose levels, which show you how certain foods can spike your body’s blood sugar levels, is also a worthwhile move, she says. “Post-meal glucose levels (for non-diabetics) should be below 140 mg/dl and return to normal levels within two or three hours after your meal,” Rodgers explains. Ideally, blood sugar increases are kept relatively mild and your numbers return to pre-meal levels quickly, which indicates healthy metabolic function.
You can keep track of your blood sugar levels by picking up a home blood glucose monitoring machine from your local drugstore.
2. Waist circumference
Believe it or not, the measurement of your waistline can serve as a pretty legitimate indicator of your overall health. This number may help your primary care provider screen for possible health risks, including heart disease and type 2 diabetes, according to the National Institutes of Health (NIH). A waist circumference size greater than 35 inches for women or 40 inches for men could indicate that your health is at risk. The reason for this? The type of fat that tends to build up in your mid-section, called intra-abdominal adipose tissue, is linked to an increase in heart-related diseases.
To measure your waist circumference at home, stand tall and wrap a tape measure around your midsection, just above your hip bones, the NIH suggests.
3. 6-minute walk test (6MWT)
Developed by the American Thoracic Society in 2002, the 6-minute walk test (6MWT) is a standardized tool that helps determine a person’s physical health. Specifically, it measures a person’s mobility, agility, and aerobic capacity. The test simply involves tracking how far a person can walk in six minutes, which is a good indicator of their ability to move and be active, Kumar notes. “Evidence suggests that the healthy range for healthy adults is a distance of between 400 and 700 meters,” she says.
4. Thyroid temperature test
Your thyroid gland plays a crucial role in your health. Not only does it produce a hormone (TSH) that regulates your metabolism, but it also affects blood pressure, heart rate, and more. Unfortunately, up to 60 percent of people with a thyroid condition don’t even know they have one! According to Rodgers, one way to see what might be going on with your thyroid is by checking your basal body temperature.
“All you have to do is grab a thermometer and put it under your armpit first thing in the morning before getting out of bed when the body is still at rest for three to five consecutive days,” she says. If your thyroid is functioning normally, your temperature will read at least 97.3 degrees Fahrenheit. A temperature that reads lower than that for more than three to five days could indicate hypothyroidism, so check in with a qualified health professional if that’s the case, Rodgers suggests.
5. Happiness levels
While not considered an actual health metric your average doctor will measure at your annual physical, a rating of happiness levels is something we should use to establish a person’s general well-being, Rodgers says. “Your happiness levels greatly influence your perceived stress, inflammation in the body, gut health, brain health, energy, and even how your body assimilates nutrients,” she explains. “When you experience more joy, happiness, and gratitude, your physical body shifts, your mindset turns more positive, and your outlook on life improves.”
Just some evidence for this: Research has linked happiness levels to decreased food cravings and emotional eating, both of which can contribute to weight gain and health issues down the line.