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Adv Nutr. 2011 Mar;2(2):159S-66S. doi: 10.3945/an.111.000307. Epub 2011 Mar 10.

Childhood obesity: are we all speaking the same language?

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  • 1National Center for Health Statistics, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Hyattsville, MD 20782, USA.


Terminology and measures used in studies of weight and adiposity in children can be complex and confusing. Differences arise in metrics, terminology, reference values, and reference levels. Most studies depend on body mass index (BMI) calculated from weight and height, rather than on more direct measures of body fatness. Definitions of overweight and obesity are generally statistical rather than risk-based and use a variety of different reference data sets for BMI. As a result, different definitions often do not give the same results. A basic problem is the lack of strong evidence for any one particular definition. Rather than formulate the question as being one of how to define obesity, it might be useful to consider what BMI cut-points best predict future health risks and how efficiently to screen for such risks. The answers may be different for different populations. In addition, rather than depending solely on BMI to make screening decisions, it is likely to be useful to also consider other factors, including not only race-ethnicity, sex and age, but also factors such as family history. Despite their limitations, BMI-based definitions of overweight and obesity provide working practical definitions that are valuable for general public health surveillance and screening.

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