Fat Chance

Last week was very good to all those of us who’d put on a few unwelcome pounds over the holidays. That’s when a new report was published in the Journal of the American Medical Association suggesting that being a little overweight makes you live longer.

But there is, as always, a catch. The measure used to determine what’s overweight is the BMI, the Body Mass Index. And that measure can be misleading. As Dan Goldberg of the Newark Star-Ledger pointed out, “Those who are particularly fit—with more muscle mass—have a higher BMI but are not necessarily overweight.” In other words, a lot of extra-healthy people with a higher BMI thanks to fitness are being grouped with not-so-healthy people who have a higher BMI thanks to cupcakes. 

Photo credit: David D
Photo credit: David D

Peter Drucker often wrote about the trickiness of measurement when multiple variables are present. “Alfred North Whitehead (1861-1947), the distinguished logician and philosopher, used to warn against the ‘danger of false concreteness,’” Drucker wrote in Management: Tasks, Responsibilities, Practices, referring to measurements that get rendered with several decimal places yet don’t truly apply to the question at hand. A manager has to know when to ignore a precise number. “He has to know that ‘larger’ and ‘smaller,’ ‘earlier’ and ‘later,’ ‘up’ and ‘down’ are quantitative terms and often more accurate, indeed more rigorous, than any specific figures or range of figures.”

As for the muscle-versus-fat ambiguity in the BMI, this is a problem that applies as much to business as to the human body. Drucker felt that many businesses try to grow—that is, to put on weight—without adding genuine muscle. “A certain amount of fat is, of course, necessary; beyond the minimum, however, fat becomes a burden on the system and even endangers it,” he warned. How can you tell the difference? “The rules are simple,” Drucker explained. “Growth that results in increased productivity of the combined resources of production (human resources, capital and physical resources) is bone and muscle. Growth that does not . . . is fat.”

Have you ever seen an organization confuse fat with muscle? What happened as a result?