The Trend of BMI Values of US Adults by Centiles, birth cohorts 1882-1986

John Komlos, Marek Brabec

NBER Working Paper No. 16252
Issued in August 2010, Revised in December 2011
NBER Program(s):Development of the American Economy, Health Economics

Trends in BMI values are estimated by centiles of the US adult population by birth cohorts 1886-1986 stratified by ethnicity. The highest centile increased by some 18 to 22 units in the course of the century while the lowest ones increased by merely 1 to 3 units. Hence, the BMI distribution became increasingly right skewed as the distance between the centiles became increasingly larger. The rate of change of BMI centile curves varied considerably over time. The BMI of white men and women experienced upsurges after the two World Wars and downswings during the Great Depression and again after 1970. However, among blacks the pattern is different during the first half of the century with men's rate of increase in BMI values decreasing substantially and that of females remaining unchanged at a relatively high level until the Second World War. However, after the war the rate of change of BMI values of blacks resembled that of the whites with an accelerating phase followed by a slow down around the 1970s. In sum, the creeping nature of the obesity epidemic is evident, as the technological and lifestyle changes of the 20th century affected various segments of the population quite differently.

download in pdf format
   (602 K)

email paper

Machine-readable bibliographic record - MARC, RIS, BibTeX

Document Object Identifier (DOI): 10.3386/w16252

Published: “The T rend of BMI V alues of US adults by deciles, birth cohorts 1882 - 1986 stratified by gender and ethnicity,” with Marek Brabec, Economics and Human Biology 9 (2011) 3:234 - 250. CESifo Working Paper No. 3132. NBER Working Paper no. 16252

Users who downloaded this paper also downloaded* these:
Komlos and Brabec w15862 The Trend of Mean BMI Values of US Adults, Birth Cohorts 1882-1986 Indicates that the Obesity Epidemic Began Earlier than Hitherto Thought
Komlos w14635 Recent Trends in Height by Gender and Ethnicity in the US in Relation to Levels of Income
Komlos, Breitfelder, and Sunder w13898 The Transition to Post-industrial BMI Values Among US Children
Burkhauser, Cawley, and Schmeiser w15005 Differences in the U.S. Trends in the Prevalence of Obesity Based on Body Mass Index and Skinfold Thickness
Philipson and Posner w7423 The Long-Run Growth in Obesity as a Function of Technological Change
NBER Videos

National Bureau of Economic Research, 1050 Massachusetts Ave., Cambridge, MA 02138; 617-868-3900; email:

Contact Us