BMI is a poor predictor of adiposity in young overweight and obese children

BMC Pediatr. 2017 Jun 2;17(1):135. doi: 10.1186/s12887-017-0891-z.


Background: The body mass index (BMI) is a simple and widely utilized screening tool for obesity in children and adults. The purpose of this investigation was to evaluate if BMI could predict total fat mass (TFM) and percent body fat (%FAT) in a sample of overweight and obese children.

Methods: In this observational study, body composition was measured by dual energy x-ray absorptiometry (DXA) in 663 male and female overweight and obese children at baseline within a multidisciplinary, pediatric fitness clinic at an academic medical center. Univariate and multivariate regression analyses were conducted to evaluate whether BMI z-score (BMIz) predicts TFM or %FAT.

Results: The BMIz, sex and age of subjects were identified as significant predictors for both TFM and %FAT. In subjects younger than 9 years, the BMIz was a weak to moderate predictor for both TFM (R2 = 0.03 for males and 0.26 for females) and %FAT (R2 = 0.22 for males and 0.38 for females). For subjects between 9 and 18 years, the BMIz was a strong predictor for TFM (R2 between 0.57 and 0.73) while BMIz remained only moderately predictive for %FAT (R2 between 0.22 and 0.42).

Conclusions: These findings advance the understanding of the utility and limitations of BMI in children and adolescents. In youth (9-18y), BMIz is a strong predictor for TFM, but a weaker predictor of relative body fat (%FAT). In children younger than 9y, BMIz is only a weak to moderate predictor for both TFM and %FAT. This study cautions the use of BMIz as a predictor of %FAT in children younger than 9 years.

Keywords: Body composition; Body mass index; Childhood obesity; Dual X-Ray absorptiometry.

Publication types

  • Observational Study

MeSH terms

  • Absorptiometry, Photon
  • Adiposity*
  • Adolescent
  • Body Mass Index*
  • Child
  • Child, Preschool
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Multivariate Analysis
  • Pediatric Obesity / diagnosis*