There are two interesting trends in missionary work right now: 1) more missionaries of both sexes are putting in their papers to serve now that the lower age requirement enables some to go who might otherwise not go, and 2) many western countries are in the grip of an obesity epidemic, with a rising average BMI (body mass index) reported every year.
Health professionals consider BMI to be a proxy metric for health, but it is a controversial metric for several reasons: 1) taller people always have a higher BMI, 2) muscular people have a higher BMI, 3) it may not be a good indicator of cardiovascular health, and 4) it can be difficult to change. BMIs for the US fall into these ranges:
- <18 = underweight, likely associated with anorexia
- 18 – 25 = normal
- 25 – 30 = overweight
- 30 – 35 = obese
- 35 – 40 = obese class II
- 40+ = obese class III
To serve a mission, a BMI of 37 or less is required, which means that in some cases prospective missionaries are turned away unless they can lose weight. Is this fair and realistic given rising BMI trends? Is it the best metric?
Is this a health issue? Here’s what the church’s site says:
Regular (daily) exercise. A missionary must be able to walk an average of six miles (10 km) per day and ride a bicycle 12 miles (19 km) per day. Prospective missionaries who aren’t walking more than from the car to a class or a job will likely get sore feet and blisters when they reach the mission field. Those who are not used to riding a bicycle regularly will also become very “saddle sore” when a bike becomes their primary means of transportation. A missionary who is out of shape will be fatigued by missionary work, and a tired missionary is more open to discouragement and health concerns than a missionary who is physically fit.
Prospective missionaries can prepare for the rigors of missionary life by establishing a regular pattern of aerobic exercise—walking, running, or cycling for one hour every day. Those whose primary form of exercise is playing electronic games or text messaging will take at least four months to achieve the level of conditioning that will allow them to actually enjoy a workout.
Or are statements like these a way of “fat shaming” the obese who already bear an unfair burden in society? I have been surprised by two things about the obesity epidemic in my time away from the US: 1) people have gotten noticeably bigger in the last 3 years while I was gone, and 2) I know many people who are obese but in great cardiovascular shape, running marathons, something I have never accomplished despite being in the “normal” BMI range.
Is it about living the word of wisdom?
Healthy eating habits. Rather than living on sugar and fat, young people should learn to enjoy meals consisting of protein and fiber, such as lean meat, yogurt, vegetables, and fruit. Also, drinking more than 12 ounces of carbonated beverage per day is too much.
The Missionary Department requires that missionaries have a body mass index no higher than 37. This is actually on the border between obesity and morbid obesity. Prospective missionaries should strive to keep their weight in the normal range, thereby avoiding obesity-related health problems. Being markedly under normal weight can also have serious health consequences.
Can you obey the Word of Wisdom and still have a BMI over 37? Of course you can. The Word of Wisdom emphasizes a diet of grains. It also doesn’t specifically prohibit or limit sugars. Corn syrup wasn’t even a thing at the time. It was written in the mid-1800s when 32 ounce Sprites were not available. It’s also a dietary code based on a very active lifestyle, the type lived by farmers or day laborers who need a lot of carbs to keep going. It doesn’t specify the right prohibitions for people in the information age who mostly sit in front of a keyboard all day.
Is it a public image issue? Another section of the same article says: “Favorable first impressions are lasting.” Missionaries are a literal representative of the church, wearing a name badge with the church’s name on it next to their own. Missionaries also submit a photograph with their mission papers. When I submitted my own, they were originally rejected because the picture I used had poor lighting, and I was told that I wasn’t smiling enough. Does the church cherry pick for image, for example, putting the most attractive missionaries in the most PR focused positions (e.g. temple square)? Is this a form of objectification?
One thing I have learned is that it doesn’t matter what people weigh, they can contribute and be valued for who they are. People who are heavy get married, have children, are great friends, can provide service, can be tremendous innovators, can give influential speeches to large organizations, can be executives in business, and so forth. Why not missionaries, if they are otherwise healthy?
 Just one point of clarification on this. The term “morbid obesity” has fallen out of use (because it is viewed as shaming). Also, the scale has moved over time and varies by country. For example, a BMI of 37 in many Asian countries would be considered far higher than in most western countries because their averages are much lower.