The paradox of low body mass index and high body fat percentage among Chinese, Malays and Indians in Singapore

Int J Obes Relat Metab Disord. 2000 Aug;24(8):1011-7. doi: 10.1038/sj.ijo.0801353.


Objective: To study the relationship between body fat percentage and body mass index (BMI) in three different ethnic groups in Singapore (Chinese, Malays and Indians) in order to evaluate the validity of the BMI cut-off points for obesity.

Design: Cross-sectional study.

Subjects: Two-hundred and ninety-one subjects, purposively selected to ensure adequate representation of range of age and BMI of the general adult population, with almost equal numbers from each ethnic and gender group.

Measurements: Body weight, body height, sitting height, wrist and femoral widths, skinfold thicknesses, total body water by deuterium oxide dilution, densitometry with Bodpod(R) and bone mineral content with Hologic(R) QDR-4500. Body fat percentage was calculated using a four-compartment model.

Results: Compared with body fat percentage (BF%) obtained using the reference method, BF% for the Singaporean Chinese, Malays and Indians were under-predicted by BMI, sex and age when an equation developed in a Caucasian population was used. The mean prediction error ranged from 2.7% to 5.6% body fat. The BMI/BF% relationship was also different among the three Singaporean groups, with Indians having the highest BF% and Chinese the lowest for the same BMI. These differences could be ascribed to differences in body build. It was also found that for the same amount of body fat as Caucasians who have a body mass index (BMI) of 30 kg/m2 (cut-off for obesity as defined by WHO), the BMI cut-off points for obesity would have to be about 27 kg/m2 for Chinese and Malays and 26 kg/m2 for Indians.

Conclusions: The results show that the relationship between BF% and BMI is different between Singaporeans and Caucasians and also among the three ethnic groups in Singapore. If obesity is regarded as an excess of body fat and not as an excess of weight (increased BMI), the cut-off points for obesity in Singapore based on the BMI would need to be lowered. This would have immense public health implications in terms of policy related to obesity prevention and management.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Absorptiometry, Photon
  • Adipose Tissue*
  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Aged
  • Asian People / genetics
  • Body Composition*
  • Body Mass Index*
  • China / ethnology
  • Cross-Sectional Studies
  • Deuterium Oxide
  • Female
  • Humans
  • India / ethnology
  • Malaysia / ethnology
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Obesity / ethnology*
  • Obesity / genetics
  • Singapore / epidemiology
  • White People / genetics


  • Deuterium Oxide