NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Ideal Weight Keeps Changing for Americans

July 17, 2003

Until the early 20th century, an extra 10, 20 or even 30 pounds of flesh was considered a sign of robust health -- a buffer against so-called wasting diseases, such as tuberculosis. Then came life-insurance statisticians, and the quantification of mortality, says Cynthia Crossen.

The statisticians began creating charts correlating weight with longevity. By 1924, based on many of those early charts, it could be claimed that more than half of all Americans over the age of 35 were overweight, explains Crossen.

When Metropolitan Life's charts for men and women were published in the early 1940s, millions of people who thought they were normal were classified as heavy.

  • In 1941, for example, an average 5-foot-10-inch 35-year-old man weighed about 171 pounds, although Metropolitan Life's weight chart for men, published in 1943, set the desirable weight for that man at 159.
  • By 1963, the average 5-foot-10-inch 35-year-old man weighed 169 pounds -- luckily for him, Metropolitan Life had just revised its weight charts, resetting his ideal weight to 165, six pounds heavier than the 1943 charts.
  • In 1983, Metropolitan Life again revised its charts to reflect new health and mortality data, and desirable weights were raised for most people, roughly two to eight pounds depending on height and frame size.

Americans are indisputably gaining weight -- but we are also chasing a numerical target that keeps getting moved, notes Crossen.

Source: Cynthia Crossen, "Americans Are Gaining Weight, But 'Ideal' Size Keeps Shrinking," Wall Street Journal, July 16, 2003.

For text (WSJ subscription required),,SB105830232931443000,00.html


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