There is increasing evidence suggesting that the cut-off values for defining obesity used in the Western countries cannot be readily applied to Asians, who often have smaller body frames than Caucasians. We examined the BMI and body fat (BF) as measured by bioelectrical impedance in 5153 Hong Kong Chinese subjects. We aimed to assess the optimal BMI reflecting obesity as defined by abnormal BF in Hong Kong Chinese. Receiver operating characteristic curve (ROC) analysis was used to assess the optimal BMI predicting BF at different levels. The mean age and SD of the 5153 subjects (3734 women and 1419 men) was 51.5 (SD 16.3) years (range: 18.0-89.5 years, median: 50.7 years). Age-adjusted partial correlation (r) between BMI and BF in women and men were 0.899 (P < 0.001) and 0.818 (P < 0.001) respectively. Using ROC analysis, the BMI corresponding to the conventional upper limit of normal BF was 22.5-23.1 kg/m(2), and the BMI corresponding to the 90 percentiles of BF was 25.4-26.1 kg/m(2). Despite similar body fat contents, the BMI cut-off value used to define obesity in Hong Kong Chinese should be lower as compared to Caucasians. We suggest a BMI of 23 kg/m(2) and 26 kg/m(2) as the cut-off values to define overweight and obesity respectively in Hong Kong Chinese.