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Measurement of body composition in children

Sarah M Phillips, MS, RD, LD
Robert J Shulman, MD
Section Editor
Kathleen J Motil, MD, PhD
Deputy Editor
Alison G Hoppin, MD


The measurement of body composition may include direct or indirect measurements of body fat, lean body mass, and bone mass, and sometimes of the distribution of fat between the visceral or subcutaneous compartments. The choice of method depends on which of these compartments is of interest, whether the measurement is for clinical purposes or research, and what degree of precision is required.

The main methods used to estimate body composition are discussed here. Measurements of growth in children and disorders of under- or over-nutrition are discussed separately. (See "Measurement of growth in children" and "Definition; epidemiology; and etiology of obesity in children and adolescents" and "Failure to thrive (undernutrition) in children younger than two years: Etiology and evaluation".)


Theoretical models of body composition divide the body into two, three, or multiple compartments:

In the two-compartment model, the body is divided into the fat and fat-free mass. Bioimpedance is a method used to assess body composition based on the two-compartment model. The two-compartment model is useful in clinical practice because of the ease with which body fat and fat-free mass can be measured and the simplicity with which their changes during health and disease can be assessed. However, the two-compartment model is subject to error because the methods used to measure body fat and fat-free mass are based upon the assumption that the chemical composition of these tissue stores remains constant across a broad range of ages and disease states.

In the three-compartment model, the body is divided into fat, fat-free mass, and bone. Dual energy x-ray absorptiometry (DXA) is a method to assess body composition based on the three compartment model. The body composition of children from birth to 16 years of age has been measured using this method (table 1) [1-3]. Fat-free mass and body fat increase with age throughout childhood, but vary at any given age depending on gender and race or ethnicity [1-4]. These estimates provide reference values for healthy children and useful comparative indices to assess nutritional deficits in children who are ill [5].


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Literature review current through: Mar 2017. | This topic last updated: Apr 18, 2017.
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