The standard ways in which we measure obesity across the globe may be outdated and inaccurate to the point of underestimating the number of people who are overweight by hundreds of millions, so says a new study.

As a result, associate professors Daniel Hruschka of Arizona State University’s School of Human Evolution and Social Change and Craig Hadley of Emory University’s Department of Anthropology are working to develop new tools that will enable us, as a worldwide population to better analyze metabolic health, and therefore help to prevent diseases such as cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes.

They looked at several studies which found that the variations in the shape of the human body varies wildly across the planet, and that the levels of obesity may be underestimated by as much as 400-500 million cases. It was also found that the discrepancies can be seen from early childhood, so child malnutrition could be arise by using current BMI assessments.

Not only are people different within a population, with build, height and all sorts of genetic factors playing a part, but across different global populations, people are simply different.

BMI falls down in accuracy by the very nature of being a ratio against height to weight, potentially categorizing those who are naturally stocky and with more muscle as being overweight, or on the flip side, labelling very tall and naturally slender people as a healthy weight when they are not, as they can accumulate a lot of body fat before crossing a BMI threshold.

BMI can be especially tricky in East Asia where slender builds are more common, and the issue has been raised by several Japanese and Chinese organizations. They may soon see modified thresholds when it comes to measuring a person’s BMI, making it a more personal experience per patient, and therefore be able to more accurately assess the patient’s health and help to prevent diseases.

The solutions that Hruschka and Hadley are looking into is the idea of a ‘basal slenderness’, which would take into account the form that could be expected in each population before urbanization and easy access to high calorie food affects it. It would effectively give each population a cutoff point which would hopefully make assessing individuals more accurate.

With more individual ways to assess people, researchers could be better prepared to estimate the numbers of overpopulation, and focus research where it matters most. On a day-to-day level, doctors and healthcare professionals could be better able to help prevent and manage health conditions.