STUDY OBJECTIVES: To compare two ethnically distinct Ethiopian populations (Oromo Arsi in Elka in the Rift Valley and Anyuak in Punjido in Gambella) for two widely used anthropometric indices of protein-energy malnutrition: body mass index < 18.5 and arm muscle circumference < 80% of the median of the US NHANES reference data. DESIGN: Anthropometric measurements were made in two cross sectional community surveys. SETTING: The Elka village in the central Rift Valley and the Punjido village in western Ethiopia. PARTICIPANTS: 1170 and 560 people from all age groups in Elka and Punjido, respectively. MAIN RESULTS: Estimates of the prevalence of malnutrition in each group differed considerably when defined from the body mass index, but were quite similar when the arm muscle circumference was used. Data for children indicated that the boys and girls in one group (Punjido) were taller but had about the same weights for age as those in the other group (Elka), suggesting that the low body mass indices among the Punjido might have a genetic basis. CONCLUSIONS: Body mass index systematically overestimates the prevalence of malnutrition among the Anyuaks in Punjido. Local reference data from a well nourished Anyuak sample or from an ethnically related population is needed to evaluate appropriately malnutrition using the body mass index. This study shows that care must be taken when assessing different ethnic groups using existing international anthropometric references.
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