AMERICANS can weigh more today than they could five years ago and still be considered healthy. At least that's what revised dietary guidelines released yesterday by the federal government say.
But health experts are not necessarily jumping for joy over the numbers, which are universally higher, or the acceptable weight ranges, which are universally wider, than they were in the 1985 guidelines.
The weights -- called "healthy" in this third edition of "Nutrition and Your Health: Dietary Guidelines for Americans" and "desirable" in the old ones -- may give license to some and comfort to others, the experts say. They may also simply reflect reality -- that Americans are getting taller and heavier.
The weight guideline is one of seven nutrition standards issued jointly by the Departments of Agriculture and Health and Human Services to help Americans eat healthfully. The guideline states simply: Maintain healthy weight.
The new weight tables are based on "interim criteria," namely, the body mass index, a set of scientific calculations involving the body weight's effect on health and mortality. "It is the most current, accurate way of reflecting what healthy weight should be," said Mary Abbott Hess, president of the American Dietetic Association.
The "acceptable weights," broken down by height, do not
differentiate between men and women, though they do make allowances for age. The new numbers are between 5 and 15 pounds higher than those in earlier guidelines. Those numbers were adapted from the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company's weight tables.
Hess conceded that a lot of people were surprised "at the wide range of weights" considered acceptable. A footnote to the weight table indicates that the higher weights in each range generally apply to men and the lower weights to women. "You can be perfectly healthy within these ranges," which span 35-40 pounds for any given age and height, she said. "A person can be significantly above or below what looks good in the mirror and still not be at risk."
Others, however, are concerned about the message the new weight tables convey.
"I'm very apprehensive as to the license they [the new weight tables] provide for the continuing of behavior," said Lou Lyon, an exercise physiologist and director of health and fitness programs at Mercy Medical Center.
"The higher the limit, the more excuse people have to weigh more," added Katherine Boyd, a licensed dietitian who specializes in weight reduction and treatment of cholesterol problems. By combining men's and women's weights in the same table, the ranges become "a good bit higher" for women, she said.
The tables are not the only component of "healthy weight," the guidelines stress. The "acceptable weights" in the new tables must be coupled with a person's waist-hip ratio and his overall risk for weight-related illnesses, they say.
The waist-hip ratio reflects weight distribution. It is healthier, experts say, to carry weight in the hips and thighs than in the waist, where fat can indicate a risk of chronic disease. For health reasons, a woman's waist should be smaller than her hips and a man's waist smaller than, or equal to, the size of his hips.
Dr. Harry Brandt, director of the Mercy Eating Disorders Clinic, said the new weight ranges may be an attempt at compromise. "As a society we are getting heavier and heavier, but we have a social-cultural emphasis on thinness," said Brandt, who had not seen the new weight tables.
"How the guidelines will impinge on these attitudes is difficult to say," he added, conceding, however, that they "might happen to help" those people who think they must be thinner than what is considered normal. "At normal weight, many people feel fat," he said.
For those who must lose weight, the guideline recommends "steady loss of 1/2 to 1 pound" a week. Again, this differs from the earlier guideline, which said 1 to 2 pounds a week was acceptable. This change was made, Hess said, because a 2-pound loss would require a person to cut 1,000 calories a day from the diet, which would take many women to dangerously low calorie levels.