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Body mass index in children and adolescents: considerations for population-based applications

After several years of experience with body mass index (BMI)-for-age reference standards in the US, the UK, and elsewhere, reflection on ‘how things are going’ seems timely. In this issue, Reilly1 offers a summary of the evidence base for the diagnostic accuracy of BMI in youth and his perspective on what is achieved by a definition of overweight and obesity based on high BMI. To complement this, in our short review, we describe the BMI measure itself, the utility of a BMI z-score (s.d. score), their utility in cross-sectional and longitudinal applications in public health/surveillance, clinical and population-based research settings.

Body mass index defined

Body mass index is a measure of weight adjusted for height. It is calculated as weight in kilograms divided by the square of height in meters. Although BMI is an imperfect tool – it does not distinguish overweight due to excess fat mass from overweight due to excess lean mass – it is the most commonly used measure for assessing obesity in adults. Other methods of determining adiposity are more accurate,2 but have limited applicability to screening or studying large populations. The BMI is well correlated with these more direct fatness measures,3, 4 and weight and height are simple, inexpensive, non-invasive measurements that are recorded routinely in clinical and research settings.

Others have discussed the limitations of clinical screening for high adiposity by comparing weight centiles to height centiles,5 and the inaccuracy of assessing overweight by observation or ‘eye-balling’ has been established.6, 7 Therefore, for screening or for epidemiologic research, using a weight/height index to define obesity has advantages that outweigh its limitations. Despite the likelihood of misclassification of the small percentage of individuals whose high BMI is due to lean muscle mass (e.g. some professional athletes), the great majority of individuals with high BMI have excess body fat.

Use of body mass index in children and adolescents

The BMI is used to assess weight status in children and adolescents as well as adults, but whereas in adults the BMI cut points that define obesity and overweight are not linked to age and do not differ for males and females, in growing children BMI varies with age and sex. Thus, a 5-year-old boy with a BMI of 20 kg/m2 is likely to be overfat, but a 15-year-old boy with a BMI of 20 kg/m2 is likely to be lean. As a result, for BMI to be meaningful in children it must be compared to a reference-standard that accounts for child age and sex.

Choice of a reference standard

National and international BMI-for-age reference standards are available. The US BMI-for-age reference is based on nationally representative data from boys and girls ages 2–20 years collected between 1963 and 1980.8 National reference standards are also in use in the UK,9 and are under development elsewhere. An international BMI reference has been produced by the International Obesity Task Force (IOTF) with data from children in the US, UK, Hong Kong, the Netherlands, Singapore and Brazil.10 Controversy exists about whether and under what circumstances a national or international reference standard is best.11, 12, 13, 14

Body mass index z-scores

Body mass index z-scores, also called BMI standard deviation (s.d.) scores, are measures of relative weight adjusted for child age and sex. Given a child's age, sex, BMI, and an appropriate reference standard, a BMI z-score (or its equivalent BMI-for-age percentile) can be determined. It should be noted that BMI z-scores are calculated relative to an external reference (whether national or international) and not to an internal reference. The effect of this is that more than 5% of the population could be, for example, above the 95th percentile of BMI-for-age. Whereas, if an internal reference were used, exactly 5% of every sample would be above the 95th percentile, and the specific BMI cut point designating the 95th percentile would not be the same across samples. For this reason, BMI z-scores are based on an external reference.

Body mass index z-scores correspond to growth chart percentiles, and can be converted into their equivalent BMI-for-age percentiles by comparison to a normal distribution table, but this is unnecessary for clinical application. In clinical practice, BMI-for-age growth charts can be used to determine a child's BMI-for-age percentile and to track relative weight status through childhood and adolescence. Body mass index-for-age growth charts are available based on US15 and UK9 reference standards. The US charts can be downloaded from The UK charts can be ordered from Using the US BMI-for-age reference, a 5-year-old boy with a BMI of 20 kg/m2 has a BMI z-score of approximately 2.5 (BMI >99th percentile) and a 15-year-old boy with a BMI of 20 kg/m2 has a BMI z-score of approximately 0.0 (BMI=50th percentile). In the United States, BMI-for-age percentiles above the 95th percentile in children and adolescents are labeled ‘overweight’ and BMI-for-age percentiles between the 85th and 95th percentiles are labeled ‘at risk for overweight.’16 Therefore, although both the 5- and 15-year-old boys described above have a BMI equal to 20 kg/m2, only the 5-year-old would be considered ‘overweight.’ Consensus in the UK is awaited; at present different cutoff points are being used for surveillance and clinical application.

Considerations for research

As alluded to above, BMI z-scores and BMI percentiles are in one sense equivalent; one can be converted into the other using a simple mathematical transformation. In most research applications, either BMI z-scores or BMI-for-age percentiles can be used to determine cut points and classify weight status of children and adolescents. However, if a continuous measure of relative weight is required, such as to assess change in adiposity, BMI z-scores and BMI-for-age percentiles will not be equivalent, and BMI-for-age percentiles are poorly suited for statistical analysis.17 Analyses using BMI z-scores can be reported in BMI percentile units for interpretability, but BMI percentile should not be the analytic variable. BMI z-scores can be appropriately used to compare between group means and to model relative weight trajectories longitudinally. It is sometimes suggested that crude BMI be used as the analytic variable with adjustment for child age and sex, but this approach is likely to decrease the interpretability of results because an internal rather than external standardization for age and sex is used.

Implications for longitudinal research into adulthood

When research spans childhood and adulthood, discrepancies between the child/adolescent and adult definitions of overweight become apparent. In adults, except for those of Asian heritage,18 BMI cut points of >25 kg/m2 indicating overweight and >30 kg/m2 indicating obesity are widely accepted, as is the terminology of overweight for the lesser extreme and obesity for the greater extreme. Equivalent terminology of overweight and obesity is used for children and adolescents by the IOTF and UK BMI-for-age references. In the US, however, the terminology of at risk for overweight and overweight has been adopted in an effort to reduce stigmatizing language; an unfortunate by-product of this is the uncertainty of meaning now attached to the term overweight, which can refer to different levels of relative weight depending upon age and reference standard. Additionally, many countries (e.g. Canada, Chile, Australia and Mexico) are using the US BMI reference, but not the ‘at risk for overweight’ terminology.

Of the reference standards currently available, only the IOTF reference provides a smooth transition from the child/adolescent to the adult definition of overweight and obesity; the IOTF reference defines overweight as the centile of BMI-for-age that passes through a BMI of 25 kg/m2 at age 18 years, and obesity as the centile that passes through a BMI of 30 kg/m2. To address the discontinuity between the UK BMI-for-age reference and adult definitions, Chinn and Rona19 provide cutoff points that pass through BMI=25 and 30 kg/m2 at age 19.5 years. The US BMI reference is defined for youth 2–20 years; in girls the 85th percentile crosses a BMI of 25 kg/m2 at age16.5 years and the 95th percentile crosses a BMI of 30 kg/m2 at 17 years, and in boys these estimates are 17.5 years for the 85th percentile and 19.5 years for the 95th percentile. Thus, an 18-year-old girl with a BMI of 25.5 kg/m2 would be considered overweight by the adult definition and normal weight by the US child/adolescent definition (BMI percentile 80th); with BMI=27 kg/m2 she would be overweight by the adult and at risk for overweight by the child/adolescent definition (BMI percentile 90th), and with BMI=30 kg/m2 she would be obese by the adult and at risk for overweight by the child/adolescent definition (BMI percentile 94th). In longitudinal research including youth and adults, there is not a straight-forward definition of overweight and obesity that can be used at all ages. We20 and others21 have used the age-20 BMI z-score reference for individuals 20 years of age and older in order to have a consistent metric of relative weight across development that can be analyzed as a continuous variable. Alternatively, if establishing cut points, individuals could be considered obese if their BMI-for-age is above the 95th percentile or their BMI is above the 30 kg/m2 cut point.22

Considerations for public health surveillance

The public health arena needs childhood obesity criteria in order to quantify the extent of the problem, establish its prevalence in different geographic areas and among different subgroups, to monitor temporal trends, and to test the impact of interventions implemented to address the problem. Several requirements for a weight measure accompany these public health uses. First, one needs definitions based on a fixed cut-off point. In the US, the CDC 2000 growth reference was constructed using data pooled across several national surveys and excluded the weight data after 1980, due to concerns that a trend of increasing child weight was already evident. In the UK, where the BMI-for-age reference is based on data collected in 1990, it has been suggested that this standard be frozen to aid future comparisons.23 In adults, observations regarding the percentage body fat and health risks at different BMI levels in Asians led to the conclusion in a World Health Organization expert consultation that disease risk occurred at levels below the current definitions.24 We lack comparable information in children. To the extent that any measure means the same thing for population subgroups, comparisons using the same cut point will be valid. Second, valid comparison across population subgroups and across time requires standard measurement protocols for height and weight; these protocols and training materials to support their use are readily available.25, 26 Third, where valid comparisons across populations are desired, one must apply a common reference standard to populations within the same time frame using consistent age groupings. For example, Wang et al.27 examined trends in pediatric overweight prevalence based on two waves of data from four countries using IOTF criteria. The survey periods although fairly similar do not match: the earlier period was 1974, 1991, 1992 and 1971 and the later period was 1997, 1997, 1998 and 1994, for Brazil, China, Russian and the United States, respectively. Such inconsistencies in timing obscure similarities and differences. In another study, in collaboration with the World Health Organization, school surveys were conducted using standard data collection methodology across Europe, Israel and the US, a massive undertaking that provides critical information but is resource intensive and requires extraordinary coordination.28 In an alternative approach, Obesity (formerly Obesity Research) has established reporting guidelines to make more consistent the reporting of results, by requiring that IOTF criteria be used in addition to any national reference, and by defining standard age groupings. Other journals might consider a similar approach. Although consistent reporting will make it possible to directly compare across time and place, as discussed above, such comparisons will be valid only if one assumes that the cutoff points have the same meaning in terms of body composition and health consequences.

Clinical considerations

As Reilly1 concludes elsewhere in this issue, a clinically based guideline based on BMI-for-age is generally useful in pediatric practice, given its consistently high specificity. A recent review of screening for pediatric overweight undertaken by the US Preventive Services Task Force came to a similar conclusion.29 The Task Force based their assessment on the demonstrated association of childhood overweight, particularly during adolescence, with adult overweight.

Looking to the future

Height and weight are simple and ubiquitous measures and have historically formed the basis of growth monitoring. Body mass index, which shows reasonably good correlations with more direct measures of adiposity and consistent linkages with adult overweight- and obesity-related co-morbidities, will likely continue to be the main measure of weight status in children. It is doubtful that we will gain much by further refinement of algebraic manipulations of height and weight. A more direct measure that reflects adiposity would be preferable, but the current alternatives are poorly suited to clinical or population research applications. Bioelectric impedance, arguably the most appealing proxy measure of adiposity for field use, is sensitive to hydration status, may vary by ethnicity, and requires instrument- and population-specific equations.30

Addition of an anthropometric indicator of central adiposity has been suggested. Several reference standards for waist circumference and waist–hip ratio have been developed and evidence is accumulating to suggest that these measures in combination with BMI may have utility for identification of those children whose high BMI has greatest health impact.31, 32, 33, 34, 35 The waist:height ratio also shows some promise as useful measure of size-adjusted central adiposity.36, 37, 38 The addition of circumferential measures may help to address the major weakness of BMI: its inability to distinguish between elevated adiposity and elevated lean mass. From a public health perspective, the observation that from 1987 to 1997 waist circumferences of British children increased more than BMI33 suggests that surveillance by BMI alone may obscure important changes in body composition39 at the population level. Prospective studies that demonstrate that the addition of an indirect measure of central adiposity is more tightly linked to obesity-related health consequences than use of BMI-for-age alone would provide some of the justification needed to add further complexity to research applications and to weight-screening recommendations.

As the evidence accrues, BMI-for-age continues to offer a valid and readily available measure for use in clinical and population-based applications. Widespread adoption of BMI-for-age in all three sectors will depend upon continued efforts to train individuals in the appropriate use of national and international growth references.


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Must, A., Anderson, S. Body mass index in children and adolescents: considerations for population-based applications. Int J Obes 30, 590–594 (2006).

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  • review
  • body mass index
  • pediatrics
  • BMI z-score
  • overweight classification

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