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Anthropometric measurement error and the assessment of nutritional status

  • Stanley J. Ulijaszek (a1) and Deborah A. Kerr (a2)


Anthropometry involves the external measurement of morphological traits of human beings. It has a widespread and important place in nutritional assessment, and while the literature on anthropometric measurement and its interpretation is enormous, the extent to which measurement error can influence both measurement and interpretation of nutritional status is little considered. In this article, different types of anthropometric measurement error are reviewed, ways of estimating measurement error are critically evaluated, guidelines for acceptable error presented, and ways in which measures of error can be used to improve the interpretation of anthropometric nutritional status discussed. Possible errors are of two sorts; those that are associated with: (1) repeated measures giving the same value (unreliability, imprecision, undependability); and (2) measurements departing from true values (inaccuracy, bias). Imprecision is due largely to observer error, and is the most commonly used measure of anthropometric measurement error. This can be estimated by carrying out repeated anthropometric measures on the same subjects and calculating one or more of the following: technical error of measurement (TEM); percentage TEM, coefficient of reliability (R), and intraclass correlation coefficient. The first three of these measures are mathematically interrelated. Targets for training in anthropometry are at present far from perfect, and further work is needed in developing appropriate protocols for nutritional anthropometry training. Acceptable levels of measurement error are difficult to ascertain because TEM is age dependent, and the value is also related to the anthropometric characteristics of the group or population under investigation. R > 0·95 should be sought where possible, and reference values of maximum acceptable TEM at set levels of R using published data from the combined National Health and Nutrition Examination Surveys I and II (Frisancho, 1990) are given. There is a clear hierarchy in the precision of different nutritional anthropometric measures, with weight and height being most precise. Waist and hip circumference show strong between-observer differences, and should, where possible, be carried out by one observer. Skinfolds can be associated with such large measurement error that interpretation is problematic. Ways are described in which measurement error can be used to assess the probability that differences in anthropometric measures across time within individuals are due to factors other than imprecision. Anthropometry is an important tool for nutritional assessment, and the techniques reported here should allow increased precision of measurement, and improved interpretation of anthropometric data.


Corresponding author

*Corresponding author: Dr Stanley J. Ulijaszek, fax +44 (0)1865 274699, email


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