Using cross-sectional surveys, Fahad Razak and colleagues investigate how the BMI (body mass index) distribution is changing for women in low- and middle-income countries.
There are well-documented global increases in mean body mass index (BMI) and prevalence of overweight (BMI≥25.0 kg/m2) and obese (BMI≥30.0 kg/m2). Previous analyses, however, have failed to report whether this weight gain is shared equally across the population. We examined the change in BMI across all segments of the BMI distribution in a wide range of countries, and assessed whether the BMI distribution is changing between cross-sectional surveys conducted at different time points.
Methods and Findings
We used nationally representative surveys of women between 1991–2008, in 37 low- and middle-income countries from the Demographic Health Surveys ([DHS] n = 732,784). There were a total of 96 country-survey cycles, and the number of survey cycles per country varied between two (21/37) and five (1/37). Using multilevel regression models, between countries and within countries over survey cycles, the change in mean BMI was used to predict the standard deviation of BMI, the prevalence of underweight, overweight, and obese. Changes in median BMI were used to predict the 5th and 95th percentile of the BMI distribution. Quantile-quantile plots were used to examine the change in the BMI distribution between surveys conducted at different times within countries. At the population level, increasing mean BMI is related to increasing standard deviation of BMI, with the BMI at the 95th percentile rising at approximately 2.5 times the rate of the 5th percentile. Similarly, there is an approximately 60% excess increase in prevalence of overweight and 40% excess in obese, relative to the decline in prevalence of underweight. Quantile-quantile plots demonstrate a consistent pattern of unequal weight gain across percentiles of the BMI distribution as mean BMI increases, with increased weight gain at high percentiles of the BMI distribution and little change at low percentiles. Major limitations of these results are that repeated population surveys cannot examine weight gain within an individual over time, most of the countries only had data from two surveys and the study sample only contains women in low- and middle-income countries, potentially limiting generalizability of findings.
Mean changes in BMI, or in single parameters such as percent overweight, do not capture the divergence in the degree of weight gain occurring between BMI at low and high percentiles. Population weight gain is occurring disproportionately among groups with already high baseline BMI levels. Studies that characterize population change should examine patterns of change across the entire distribution and not just average trends or single parameters.
Please see later in the article for the Editors' Summary
The number of obese people (individuals who have an excessive amount of body fat) is rapidly increasing in many countries. Globally, there were about 200 million obese adults in 1995; by 2010, 475 million adults were obese and another billion were classified as overweight. Obesity is defined as having a body mass index (BMI, an indicator of body fat calculated by dividing a person's weight in kilograms by their height in meters squared) of more than 30.0 kg/m2. Compared to people with a healthy weight (a BMI between 18.5 and 24.9 kg/m2), obese individuals and overweight individuals (who have a BMI between 25.0 and 29.9 kg/m2) have an increased risk of developing diabetes, heart disease and stroke, and tend to die younger. At the same time in many developing countries substantial numbers of people are underweight (BMI <18.5 kg/m2) or have chronic energy deficiency (BMI <16.0 kg/m2) and are at risk of increased risk of dying due to infectious disease or respiratory problems.
Why Was This Study Done?
The global obesity epidemic is usually described in terms of increases in the average BMI or in the prevalence of obesity (the proportion of the population whose BMI is above 30.0 kg/m2). Such descriptions assume that the BMIs of fat and thin people are increasing at the same rate and that the shape of the population's BMI distribution curve remains constant. However, as average BMI and the prevalence of obesity can increase it is unclear how the prevalence of underweight changes. This is potentially important for the health of the population because underweight individuals, like obese individuals, tend to die younger than healthy weight individuals, particularly in low-income countries. In this study, the researchers use repeated cross-sectional survey data collected from low- and middle-income countries in the Demographic and Health Surveys (DHS) to examine changes in BMI in women across the BMI distribution between 1991 and 2008. Repeated cross-sectional surveys collect data from a population at multiple time points from different individuals drawn from the same population, DHS are a data collection and surveillance project that help developing countries track health and population trends.
What Did the Researchers Do and Find?
The researchers used statistical models to analyze data from DHS surveys of more than 730,000 women living in 37 low- and middle-income countries (two to five surveys per country). Increasing average BMI was associated with an increase in the standard deviation of BMI (a measure of the dispersion of BMI in the population) both across and within countries over time. With increasing average BMI, the BMI at both the 5th and 95th percentile increased; 90% of the BMIs in a population lie between these percentiles so these BMI values indicate the spread of the BMI distribution. However, the BMI at the 95th percentile increased about 2.5 times faster than the BMI at the 5th percentile. Moreover, with increasing average BMI, the prevalence of overweight and obesity increased faster than the decline in the prevalence of underweight. Finally, quantile-quantile plots for each country (a graphical method that compares two distributions) revealed a consistent pattern of unequal weight gain across the BMI distribution as average BMI increased, with pronounced weight gains at the obese end of the distribution and little change at the underweight end.
What Do These Findings Mean?
These findings show that increases in average BMI are associated with an increased spread of BMI across and within populations. Consequently, changes in average BMI or single measurements such as the prevalence of overweight do not capture the divergence in the degree of weight gain occurring between that part of the population that has a low BMI and that part that has a high BMI. In other words, at least for the low- and middle-income countries included in this study, population weight gain is occurring disproportionately among groups with high baseline BMI levels. The researchers suggest, therefore, that the characterization of the BMI of populations over time should examine the patterns of change across the whole BMI distribution. Moreover, rather than a single broad population strategy for weight control, optimum health outcomes, they suggest, might be achieved by a strategy that includes targeted interventions to reduce weight in high BMI segments of the population and to increase weight in low BMI segments.
Please access these Web sites via the online version of this summary at http://dx.doi.org/10.1371/journal.pmed.1001367.
The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention provides information on all aspects of overweight and obesity (in English and Spanish)
The World Health Organization provides information on obesity (in several languages); Malri's story describes the health risks faced by an obese child
The UK National Health Service Choices website also provides detailed information about obesity and a link to a personal story about losing weight
The International Obesity Taskforce provides information about the global obesity epidemic
The US Department of Agriculture's ChooseMyPlate.gov website provides a personal healthy eating plan; the Weight-control Information Network is an information service provided for the general public and health professionals by the US National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (in English and Spanish)
MedlinePlus has links to further information about obesity (in English and Spanish)