The trend in the body mass index (BMI) values of the US population has not been estimated accurately because the time series data are unavailable and the focus has been on calculating period effects.


To estimate the trend and rate of change of BMI values by birth cohorts stratified by gender and ethnicity born 1882–1986.


We use loess additive regression models to estimate age and trend effects of BMI values of US-born black and white adults measured between 1959 and 2006. We use all the National Health Examination Survey and National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey data.


The increase in BMI was already underway among the birth cohorts of the early 20th century. The rate of increase was fastest among black females; for the three other groups under consideration, the rates of increase were similar. The generally persistent upward trend was punctuated by upsurges, particularly after each of the two world wars. The estimated rate of change of BMI values increased by 71% among black females between the birth cohorts 1955 and those of 1965 is indicative of the rapid increases in their weight.


We infer that transition to postindustrial weights was a gradual process and began considerably earlier than hitherto supposed. Am. J. Hum. Biol. 22:631–638, 2010. © 2010 Wiley-Liss, Inc.