Body mass index, or BMI, has been in the news frequently as doctors and other health professionals question whether the tool is the best measure to calculate a healthy weight range. Some researchers argue that certain factors, particularly genetic background and race, can cause significant differences in the way an individual carries weight, and suggest that the BMI may need an adjustment.

In 2009, a study published in the British Journal of Nutrition had a shocking conclusion: BMI, the formula widely used to determine healthy/unhealthy body fat, may not be accurate for non-white individuals. According to the research, the scale was created based solely on data from white men and women and failed to take into account the often significant differences in body composition among the races. But how could basing your body mass off of one group of people be detrimental to other races?

Evidence has shown that increases in weight over time can be more harmful in Asians than in the other ethnic groups, especially whites, whom the BMI chart was modeled after. For example, a 20-year study based on 78,000 American women showed that Asians had more than double the risk of developing Type 2 diabetes than whites. According to the study, for every 11 pounds Asians gain during adulthood, they have an 84 percent increase in their risk of Type 2 diabetes. Although Hispanics, whites and blacks also increased their diabetes risk with weight gain, it was to a much lesser degree than Asians. In addition, at the same BMI, Asians have higher risks of hypertension and cardiovascular disease than their white European counterparts, and a higher risk of dying early from cardiovascular disease.

It’s not entirely clear as to why weight affects Asians more seriously, but it may be due to differences in overall body fat, regardless of your actual weight. According to a Harvard University press release, when compared to white Europeans of the same BMI, Asians have 3 to 5 percent higher total body fat. In addition, South Asians, in particular, have especially high levels of body fat and are more prone to developing weight gain in their abdomen, the most dangerous area to gain weight. Regardless of your overall weight, having a large amount of belly fat increases your risk of risk serious health conditions such as cardiovascular disease, insulin resistance, Type 2 diabetes, and colorectal cancer.

On the other hand, though weight gain may be more dangerous for Asians compared to whites, it may be slightly less dangerous for blacks. BET reported that black Americans tend to have less visceral fat that is around their organs and more muscle mass than their white counterparts of the same BMI. Although they may be heavier and have more body fat, it may not be as detrimental to their overall health due to where this fat accumulates.

“Right now non-Hispanic white women are not considered obese until they have a BMI of 30 or above," explained Molly Bray, an associate professor of pediatrics at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston who co-authored a study on the topic in 2009. "For African American women the number to cross is around 32."

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