PAMF Health Blog

Be Well, Be Well Informed

Standard Body Mass Index (BMI) Scale Doesn’t Measure Up for South Asians

Posted on Dec 12, 2011

Body Mass Index (BMI), which is a measure of weight proportionate to height, is a standard used around the world to figure out when someone is overweight or obese. BMI is an estimate of body fat and a good gauge of your risk for diseases that are more likely to develop with excessive amounts body fat.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the higher your BMI, the higher your risk for certain chronic diseases such as heart disease, high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes, gallstones, breathing problems and certain cancers.

However, if you are South Asian, you should know that the standard BMI scale may underestimate your disease risk.

South Asians tend to have a high percentage of body fat at a lower BMI. A study published in scientific journal The Lancet showed that for the same BMI of 22.3, an individual of Asian Indian decent had more than 21 percent body fat, compared to a Caucasian (white) individual with 9 percent body fat. This study showed that Asian Indians have more body fat at lower BMIs than Caucasian people.

Since even a little excess body fat can significantly increase one’s risk of developing diabetes and heart disease, the World Health Organization (WHO) in 2004 lowered the BMI limits for South Asians to more accurately reflect risk for this population. According to WHO, Asian Indians with a BMI of greater than 23 kg/m2 are considered overweight and a BMI of greater than 27.5 kg/m2 are considered obese.

Another measure measure used to assess weight status, body fat and disease risk is waist-to-hip ratio. It measures visceral fat and is calculated by taking your waist circumference and dividing it by your hip circumference. A waist-to-hip ratio greater than 0.80 for women and 0.90 for men puts the individual at higher risk for diabetes and heart disease.

Since South Asians have a higher percentage of body fat – which is often times deposited in the abdominal area – they may be at higher risk for diabetes and heart diseases even if their weight is considered normal by the CDC standards. To minimize risk, it is important to eat healthy and lead a physically active lifestyle.

The Palo Alto Medical Foundation’s  South Asian Wellness Task Force offers additional South Asian wellness information and team members contributed to this blog post.