Asthma and obesity are both chronic conditions and their prevalences have risen in affluent societies. A positive association between asthma and being overweight or obese has been reported in children and women, but associations in men are less clearly described. The objective of this study was to explore the association between body mass index (BMI) and asthma in men and women of diverse ethnic and socioeconomic background living in New York State, USA. In this study, we analyzed cross-sectional data on 5524 subjects aged 18 years and older who were interviewed by telephone in the 1996 and 1997 New York State Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System. Asthma (doctor-diagnosed), and weight and height were self-reported. BMI (kg/m2) was used as a measure of adiposity. Weighted logistic regression analysis, with stratification by gender and age, was used to examine the relationship between asthma prevalence and BMI, adjusting for race/ethnicity, education, health insurance, time since last physical examination, physical activity and smoking status. The results showed that the prevalence of asthma was 4.6% (CI: 3.6-5.5%) among men and 8.1% (CI: 7.1-9.1%) among women. In women, the prevalence of asthma was significantly increased in those with a BMI 25 kg/m2 or higher (BMI 25-27.5: OR = 1.76, 95% CI: 1.06-2.94; BMI 27.5-29.9: OR = 2.45, 95% CI: 1.41-4.25; BMI > or = 30: OR = 2.67, 95% CI: 1.66-4.29) when compared to the reference category (BMI: 22-24.9 kg/m2). In men, the prevalence of asthma was increased in the lowest weight category, BMI < 22 kg/m2 (OR = 3.05, 95% CI: 1.37-6.78) and in the highest category, BMI > or = 30 kg/m2 (OR = 2.92, 95% CI: 1.39-6.14). This U-shaped association persisted when restricting the analysis to men who had never smoked and was more pronounced for those between 18 and 49 years of age. In conclusion, this cross-sectional study showed that men and women differ significantly in the association between BMI and asthma prevalence only with respect to the lowest weight category. While women had a monotonic association, men showed a U-shaped relationship, indicating that both extremes of weight are associated with a higher prevalence of asthma.