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Bypassing BMI to build a better health profile for women

Tuesday, June 24, 2014
Bypassing BMI to build a better health profile for women

Nutrition experts at Massey University are bypassing the more traditional Body Mass Index (BMI) to build a better health profile based on body fat and the risk of chronic disease.

The study, focusing on Māori, Pasifika and New Zealand European/Pakeha women of all sizes is currently underway and more participants are now urgently needed to take part.

Principal investigator for the study Associate Professor Rozanne Kruger – from the Institute of Food, Nutrition and Human Health (IFNHH) – says it’s a chance for women to get a benchmark of their current health, and help build more accurate profiles for future health guidance.

“We urgently need more Māori and Pasifika women of all sizes, and real-sized (size 16 plus) New Zealand European/Pakeha women to step up and maybe help bust some myths about body size and fat,” she says. “This is a chance to bypass BMI and get some real data together on what a ‘healthy’ woman looks like, and work out who is more at risk from chronic diseases like diabetes.”

The study comes at a time when obesity rates have increased over the past 15 years from 19 per cent in 1997 to 31 per cent in 2012/13. According to the latest New Zealand Health Survey data, about 1.2 million New Zealand adults are now obese.

“It is well known that one obesity prevention message for a whole population has little impact on the obesity rates – one size does not fit all. By focusing on building profiles for body composition groups we will be able to create a strong foundation for future evidence-based practice guidelines,” says Dr Kruger.

“Our previous research has shown that while some women appear to be lean, they are actually carrying hidden fat in their bodies which may put them at risk for developing chronic diseases,” says Dr Kruger.

The EXPLORE (EXamining the Predictors Linking Obesity-Related Elements) study, funded by the Netherlands-based Nutricia Research Foundation and New Zealand Lottery Health Research, has been underway since October 2013 and profiles almost 700 women of Māori, Pasifika and New Zealand European/Pakeha ethnicity. The study investigates how different body fat profiles are related to the risk of developing chronic disease. “We would like to find out what role diet, taste and physical activity patterns play in determining body fat profiles to assist in compiling preventive approaches for each group,” says Dr Kruger.

Dr Kruger says finding out where fat is hidden could also help with the fight against obesity.

“We would like to know where both apparent and hidden fat is situated, especially in younger women where the typical central fat deposition following menopause is absent,” she says. “We are also keen to investigate whether the recently discovered microRNA molecules are sensitive to diet and exercise, and if these molecules can be used as potential biomarkers for assessing metabolic disease risk.

This new research follows on from a 2009 pilot study which investigated the variations of body fat percentage and body weight against the benchmark Body Mass Index.

In the pilot study it was revealed that, on average, in a normal healthy population of New Zealand European/Pakeha women aged 18-44 years, 21.4 per cent had a normal BMI of 22.6 kg/m2 and a high body fat percentage of 33.7 , and a higher sedentary lifestyle, indicating increased metabolic risk.

To gain an accurate overview, the research team need to find a total of 675 women across three particular ethnic groups from the Auckland region. They already have a large proportion of smaller-sized New Zealand European/Pakeha women, and need at least 400 more participants of both Māori and Pasifika origin.

“We have already screened 440 women. Due to the criteria for participation, we need to screen a larger number because not everybody fits into the groups being investigated in the study. We urgently need to screen around 600 Māori and Pasifika women and still need about 50 larger (size 16 plus) New Zealand European/Pakeha women as well,” she says.

Dr Kruger hopes that Māori and Pasifika women will encourage each other to join in the study, and enable the availability of more accurate information about Polynesian body shapes and profiles. “Auckland is home to the world’s main Polynesian population. It’s the perfect place for this study to take place, so we can work out more accurate risk profiles for chronic diseases,” she says.

Prospective participants will first need to undergo some initial screening measurements to determine eligibility. Dr Kruger says the research team are happy to travel to marae and community venues to do the initial screening.

Women accepted into the second phase of the study will need to visit the Albany campus for further assessments. The research team can assist with transportation to the campus if required.

During the second phase participants will undergo a full body composition assessment (which will show body fat percentage and distribution) using the BODPOD and DXA and have their blood sample and blood pressure taken. In addition, a taste perception test will be carried out, and questionnaires regarding diet and physical activity will be completed. Participants will be given an accelerometer (a small device similar to a step-counter) to be worn around their waist for a seven-day period to measure physical activity.

Be women of Māori, Pasifika, or New Zealand European/Pakeha ethnicity, defined as having at least one parent from the specific ethnicity
Be aged between 16 and 45 years of age
Have had regular menstrual cycles for the past 12 months
Not be pregnant or breast-feeding
Not have any chronic diseases such as heart disease, diabetes or cancer

Participants accepted into the study will receive their own blood cholesterol and glucose results, a body composition assessment valued at over $100 and a petrol/shopping voucher. Each participant will receive their individual results accompanied by an explanation of data. At the completion of the study recipients will receive the overall findings. The research team can travel offsite for group screening sessions and can provide extra support for group travel arrangements to Albany for the second phase of the study.

For more information, please visit the website:

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