The objective was to study the relationship between body mass index (BMI) and body fat per cent (BF%) in different population groups of Asians. The study design was a literature overview with special attention to recent Asian data. Specific information is provided on Indonesians (Malays and Chinese ancestry), Singaporean Chinese, Malays and Indians, and Hong Kong Chinese. The BMI was calculated from weight and height and the BF% was determined by deuterium oxide dilution, a chemical-for-compartment model, or dual-energy X-ray absorptiometry. All Asian populations studied had a higher BF% at a lower BMI compared to Caucasians. Generally, for the same BMI their BF% was 3–5% points higher compared to Caucasians. For the same BF% their BMI was 3–4 units lower compared to Caucasians. The high BF% at low BMI can be partly explained by differences in body build, i.e. differences in trunk-to-leg-length ratio and differences in slenderness. Differences in muscularity may also contribute to the different BF%/BMI relationship. Hence, the relationship between BF% and BMI is ethnic-specific. For comparisons of obesity prevalence between ethnic groups, universal BMI cut-off points are not appropriate.