The Limitations of Transforming Very High Body Mass Indexes intoz-Scores among 8.7 Million 2- to 4-Year-Old Children

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Abstract

Objective

To examine the associations among several body mass index (BMI) metrics (z-scores, percent of the 95th percentile (%BMIp95) and BMI minus 95th percentile (ΔBMIp95) as calculated in the growth charts from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). It is known that the widely used BMI z-scores (BMIz) and percentiles calculated from the growth charts can differ substantially from those that directly observed in the data for BMIs above the 97th percentile (z = 1.88).

Study design

Cross-sectional analyses of 8.7 million 2- to 4-year-old children who were examined from 2008 through 2011 in the CDC's Pediatric Nutrition Surveillance System.

Results

Because of the transformation used to calculate z-scores, the theoretical maximum BMIz varied by >3-fold across ages. This results in the conversion of very high BMIs into a narrow range of z-scores that varied by sex and age. Among children with severe obesity, levels of BMIz were only moderately correlated (r ˜ 0.5) with %BMIp95 and ΔBMIp95. Among these children with severe obesity, BMIz levels could differ by more than 1 SD among children who had very similar levels of BMI, %BMIp95 and ΔBMIp95 due to differences in age or sex.

Conclusions

The effective upper limit of BMIz values calculated from the CDC growth charts, which varies by sex and age, strongly influences the calculation of z-scores for children with severe obesity. Expressing these very high BMIs relative to the CDC 95th percentile, either as a difference or percentage, would be preferable to using BMI-for-age, particularly when assessing the effectiveness of interventions.

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