Huckabee and the pudgy military

SUMMARY: Mike Huckabee notes that 61 percent of active-duty military personnel are overweight, but the measure used to reach that figure has limited value.

Discussing America's obesity problem on CNBC's Street Signs , Huckabee — who famously lost 110 pounds while governor of Arkansas — said: "Sixty-one percent of our active military are currently listed as overweight." Those mess hall cooks must be pretty good, because Huckabee is correctly citing the Defense Department's 2005 Survey of Health Related Behaviors. But the report's statistics come with one bulging asterisk: They rely on body-mass index, which by itself isn't a perfect indicator of obesity. The report, released in December 2006, found that 60.5 percent of active-duty military personnel are overweight and 12.9 percent obese. BMI is a ratio of height to weight, specifically weight (in kilograms) divided by the square of height (in meters). The 60 percent figure is derived from the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute guidelines, which define a BMI over 25 as overweight and over 30 as obese.

But using BMI alone doesn't give a full picture of a person's health and fitness level, said Larry Collins, a physician assistant at the University of South Florida department of orthopedics and sports medicine. "Just to use BMI ... is probably a little too simplistic," Collins said. BMI doesn't take into account whether a person's weight comes from muscle or fat. At 6-3 and 220 pounds, Chris Brown — the NFL's leading rusher in Week 1 of the 2007 season — has a BMI of 27.5; we wouldn't want to be the ones to tell Brown he's technically overweight and heading toward obese. Indeed, the NFL disputed a 2005 study that found nearly all of its players were overweight and more than half obese according to BMI. (When the Associated Press found that nearly half of NBA players were overweight, the 7-1, 325-pound Shaquille O'Neal said: "I've read that same formula, but as an athlete, I'm classified as phenomenal," noting that he had 13 percent body fat. "You can look it up.") Collins said that for "somebody who has a high BMI but is relatively fit ... we don't know what the consequences of that are over the long term."

Other factors like a person's body fat, aerobic fitness and strength levels are better indicators of overall health and whether he or she is overweight, he said.

Despite basing its conclusions on BMI, the Defense Department health report actually agrees with Collins: "The military services (with the exception of the Air Force) use BMI as a screening measure only. Active-duty service members whose BMI exceed standards for their branch of service are subsequently measured to calculate percent body fat. Adverse career actions and enrollment into service weight management programs are based on body fat percent rather than on BMI."

The report does not say how much of the military is overweight according to body fat criteria. The Military Health System does not keep individual body fat statistics, though each service monitors individual weight and fitness levels, according to Lynn Pahland, the Defense Department's director of health promotion and preventive services policy.

As to why the Defense survey's conclusions are based on BMI, Pahland said in an e-mail, "The survey is assessing population behaviors and statistics, whereas each of the services have specific processes to assess weight and fitness and 'fatness.' ... Beyond the fact that a BMI of more than 25 indicates increased health risks, the question of how that might impact fitness, performance, readiness and military bearing is determined independently by the individual military services."

Still, Collins said BMI is a general indicator of obesity.

"It does help give us some indication that people are trending that way ... if their BMI keeps going up up up," he said. Indeed, the Defense report found that the rate of overweight military personnel had increased from 1995, when 50 percent were overweight. And considering more than three-quarters of active-duty male personnel older than 35 had BMIs over 25 in 2005, it's probably a safe bet that not all of them had Chris Brown's physique.

So we can't fault Huckabee too much for using the military's publicized weight statistics, even if those numbers don't tell the whole story.