Body mass index (BMI) is used to diagnose obesity in adolescents worldwide, despite evidence that weight does not scale with height squared in adolescents. To account for this, health care providers diagnose obesity using BMI percentiles for each age (BMI z scores), but this does not ensure that BMI is accurate in adolescents.Objective
To compare the accuracy of BMI vs other body fat indices of the form body mass divided by heightn in estimating body fat levels in adolescents.Design, Setting, and Participants
Cross-sectional data from the 1999 to 2006 US National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey were analyzed between September 2015 and December 2016.Main Outcomes and Measures
Dual-energy x-ray absorptiometry and anthropometric data were used to determine changes in body fat levels, body proportions, and the scaling relationships among body mass, height, and percent body fat. To assess the merits of each adiposity index, 3 criteria were used: stability with age, accuracy in estimating percent body fat, and accuracy in classifying adolescents as overweight vs normal weight.Results
Participants included 2285 non-Hispanic white participants aged 8 to 29 years. Percent body fat varied with both age and height during adolescence, invalidating the standard weight-to-height regression as the way of finding the optimal body fat index. Because the correct regression model (percent body fat is proportional to mass divided by heightn) suggested that percent body fat scales to height with an exponent closer to 3, we therefore focused on the tri-ponderal mass index (TMI; mass divided by height cubed) as an alternative to BMI z scores. For ages 8 to 17 years, TMI yielded greater stability with age and estimated percent body fat better than BMI (R2 = 0.64 vs 0.38 in boys and R2 = 0.72 vs 0.66 in girls). Moreover, TMI misclassified adolescents as overweight vs normal weight less often than BMI z scores (TMI, 8.4%; 95% CI, 7.3%-9.5% vs BMI, 19.4%; 95% CI, 17.8%-20.0%; P < .001) and performed equally as well as updated BMI percentiles derived from the same data set (TMI, 8.4%; 95% CI, 7.3%-9.5% vs BMI, 8.0%; 95% CI, 6.9%-9.1%; P = .62).Conclusions and Relevance
The tri-ponderal mass index estimates body fat levels more accurately than BMI in non-Hispanic white adolescents aged 8 to 17 years. Moreover, TMI diagnoses adolescents as overweight more accurately than BMI z scores and equally as well as updated BMI percentiles but is much simpler to use than either because it does not involve complicated percentiles. Taken together, it is worth considering replacing BMI z scores with TMI to estimate body fat levels in adolescents.