One million skinfolds: secular trends in the fatness of young people 1951-2004

Eur J Clin Nutr. 2009 Aug;63(8):934-46. doi: 10.1038/ejcn.2009.7. Epub 2009 Feb 18.


Background/objectives: There are abundant data on secular trends in the body mass index (BMI) of children. However, BMI is an imperfect index of fatness, whereas skinfold thicknesses provide a more direct measure. This study aims to meta-analyse historical studies of triceps and subscapular skinfold thicknesses in young people aged 0-18 years in developed countries.

Subjects/methods: A total of 154 studies conducted between 1951 and 2003 were analysed, covering 2390 reports at the age x sex x country level, and more than 458,547 young people from 30 developed countries. Percentage body fat (% BF) was estimated using the Slaughter equations. The distribution of fat on the body was indexed by the triceps/subscapular (T/S) ratio. The skewness of skinfold distributions was operationalized by the coefficient of variation and the mean-median difference.

Results: There have been increases in triceps and subscapular skinfold thicknesses, at the rate of 0.4-0.5 mm per decade over the period 1951-2003. % BF has been increasing at the rate of 0.9% BF per decade. The distribution of fat on the body, as indexed by the triceps/subscapular (T/S) ratio, has become more central. There has been an increasing positive skew in the distribution of subcutaneous fat thickness in the population.

Conclusions: These trends describe very unfavourable changes in the body composition of young people, foreshadowing a potential increase in the incidence of cardiovascular and metabolic disease.

Publication types

  • Historical Article
  • Meta-Analysis

MeSH terms

  • Adiposity*
  • Adolescent
  • Child
  • Child, Preschool
  • Female
  • History, 20th Century
  • History, 21st Century
  • Humans
  • Infant
  • Male
  • Obesity / epidemiology
  • Obesity / history*
  • Skinfold Thickness*
  • Subcutaneous Fat*