Body Mass Index

A Culturally-Relevant Perspective on This Issue


Body Mass Index (BMI) is the most common measurement of body weight and is calculated by dividing a person’s height, squared (kg/m2). In Canada, body weight classes are categorized by BMI values (obese: BMI = 30, overweight: BMI = 25.0-29.9, underweight: BMI < 18.5, normal weight: BMI = 19.0-24.9). The Aboriginal population is 2.5 times more likely to be obese or overweight compared to their non-Aboriginal counterparts, making obesity a major health concern among Aboriginal communities [1]. Health risks are associated with weight classes higher and lower than the normal weight class [2]. This poses serious health issues such as increased risk of chronic health problems as diabetes, hypertension, gall bladder disease, arthritis, risk of cardiovascular disease, and other health problems. High rates of both overweight and obesity among Aboriginal peoples may reflect socioeconomic differences, eating habits, physical activity levels, as well as rapid changes in lifestyle and diet [2-4].

First Nations

The First Nations population in general has a higher BMI compared to the general population; the obesity rate for the First Nations population is twice the Canadian obesity rate [5]. For example, among the age group 18-34 years, 35% of First Nations were overweight compared to 25% in the general population. Similarly, in the age group 34-54 years, 44% of First Nations people were found to be obese compared to 19% of 34-54 years olds in the general population [6]. Among First Nations people, the majority of overweight individuals are men (42% versus 32% in women). However, First Nations females are more likely than their male counterparts to be obese (40% versus 32%). [7]. Childhood obesity is also a growing problem among First Nations communities [8].


Data on body weight of Métis is limited, however numerous studies have identified obesity among the Métis population as a major risk factor for chronic disease, such as diabetes and cardiovascular diseases [9-11].


The Inuit population has undergone rapid lifestyle changes, including changes to their diet and physical activity levels. This has lead to a steady increase in BMI, which is comparable or greater than that of the general population [12]. A 2007 study found that rates of overweight were 33% for women and 37% for men, while rates of obesity were 26% for women and 16% for men. Obesity in children has also recently been identified as a major health problem among Inuit communities [8].

Obesity and a tendency to store weight around the abdomen are especially high among Inuit women [13]. However, in the Inuit population, high BMIs are less likely to be associated with metabolic consequences (such as high blood lipids and blood pressure) and disease risk compared to the general Canadian population [14]. Several possible reasons for this could be genetic differences and dietary differences [13].

Due to differences in body shape and composition of Inuit peoples compared to the general population, there is debate surrounding the applicability of the BMI measurement as an indicator for obesity. Ethno-specific obesity criteria may be necessary to assess body weight among the Inuit population [14]. Nationally collected data on body weight among the Inuit is currently unavailable and is needed to understand and address the body weight and associated health issues among the Inuit population.