Background: In children with either delayed or accelerated growth, expressing the body mass index (BMI) to chronological age might lead to invalid body composition estimates. Reference to height-age has been suggested for such populations; however its validity has not been demonstrated.
Methods: Anthropometric data of healthy children were obtained from the German KiGGS survey. We selected three samples with different height distributions representing short stature (mean height SDS: -1.6), normal stature (height SDS: 0), and tall stature (height SDS: +1.6), and compared BMI-for-age and BMI-for-height-age between these samples across the paediatric age range. Differences between samples were tested using Kruskal-Wallis one-way analysis of variance and permutation tests.
Results: At a given age, BMI was distributed towards lower values in short, and towards higher values in tall subjects as compared to a population with average height distribution. Expressing BMI to height-age eliminated these differences in boys with a short stature from 4 years to 14 years of age, in tall boys from 4 to 16 years, in short girls aged 2-10 years or tall girls aged 2-17 years.
Conclusion: From late infancy to adolescent age, BMI distribution co-varies with height distribution and referencing to height-age appears appropriate within this age period. However, caution is needed when data about pubertal status are absent.