The Pipeline

Women's Obesity Prevalence Underreported Using BMI Guidelines

Though Americans widely use body mass index (BMI) to determine obesity, an article published in the May issue of Obstetrics and Gynecology suggests that this standard fails to identify many women considered obese by the Geneva, Switzerland-based World Health Organization (WHO)--which qualifies women with body fat of 35 percent or higher as obese. Using a sample of over 800 women between the ages of 16 and 33 years, approximately 37 percent were considered obese (over 30kg/m2) using BMI standards compared to over 63 percent using the WHO standard. Further, the study revealed notable differences in percent body fat for a given BMI across different ethnicities, with white and Hispanic women maintaining almost 3 percent more body fat on average than black women for any BMI. 

As such, researchers suggest that the Bethesda, Maryland-based (NIH)-recommended BMI threshold of 30 kg/m2 is too high and that many women below the cutoff may benefit from weight-loss counseling.  Additionally, the study recommends accounting for race/ethnicity within BMI cutoffs to counteract body fat percentage discrepancies. Resultantly, health care providers should consider early testing for obesity-related conditions--such as diabetes and cardiovascular disease--in overweight patients, even if they are not deemed obese by BMI standards. This need is particularly acute in reproductive age women who are more likely to be obese than their male counterparts but often do not receive necessary testing and treatment for obesity-related conditions.  

Click here to view USA Today coverage of the article.