Body mass index categories in observational studies of weight and risk of death

Am J Epidemiol. 2014 Aug 1;180(3):288-96. doi: 10.1093/aje/kwu111. Epub 2014 Jun 3.


The World Health Organization (Geneva, Switzerland) and the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (Bethesda, Maryland) have developed standard categories of body mass index (BMI) (calculated as weight (kg)/height (m)(2)) of less than 18.5 (underweight), 18.5-24.9 (normal weight), 25.0-29.9 (overweight), and 30.0 or more (obesity). Nevertheless, studies of BMI and the risk of death sometimes use nonstandard BMI categories that vary across studies. In a meta-analysis of 8 large studies that used nonstandard BMI categories and were published between 1999 and 2014 and included 5.8 million participants, hazard ratios tended to be small throughout the range of overweight and normal weight. Risks were similar between subjects of high-normal weight (BMI of approximately 23.0-24.9) and those of low overweight (BMI of approximately 25.0-27.4). In an example using national survey data, minor variations in the reference category affected hazard ratios. For example, choosing high-normal weight (BMI of 23.0-24.9) instead of standard normal weight (BMI of 18.5-24.9) as the reference category produced higher nonsignificant hazard ratios (1.05 vs. 0.97 for men and 1.06 vs. 1.02 for women) for the standard overweight category (BMI of 25.0-29.9). Use of the standard BMI groupings avoids problems of ad hoc and post hoc category selection and facilitates between-study comparisons. The ways in which BMI data are categorized and reported may shape inferences about the degree of risk for various BMI categories.

Keywords: body mass index; body weight; epidemiologic methods; mortality; obesity; overweight.

Publication types

  • Meta-Analysis

MeSH terms

  • Body Mass Index*
  • Body Weight*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Mortality*
  • Overweight
  • Reference Standards
  • Risk
  • Smoking / epidemiology
  • Thinness
  • United States / epidemiology