The statistical mechanics of human weight change

John C. Lang*, Hans De Sterck, Daniel M. Abrams

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

5 Scopus citations


Over the past 35 years there has been a near doubling in the worldwide prevalence of obesity. Body Mass Index (BMI) distributions in high-income societies have increasingly shifted rightwards, corresponding to increases in average BMI that are due to well-studied changes in the socioeconomic environment. However, in addition to this shift, BMI distributions have also shown marked changes in their particular shape over time, exhibiting an ongoing right-skewed broadening that is not well understood. Here, we compile and analyze the largest data set so far of year-over-year BMI changes. The data confirm that, on average, heavy individuals become lighter while light individuals become heavier year-over-year, and also show that year-over-year BMI evolution is characterized by fluctuations with a magnitude that is linearly proportional to BMI. We find that the distribution of human BMIs is intrinsically dynamic—due to the short-term variability of human weight—and its shape is determined by a balance between deterministic drift towards a natural set point and diffusion resulting from random fluctuations in, e.g., diet and physical activity. We formulate a stochastic mathematical model for BMI dynamics, deriving a theoretical shape for the BMI distribution and offering a mechanism that may explain the right-skewed broadening of BMI distributions over time. An extension of the base model investigates the hypothesis that peer-to-peer social influence plays a role in BMI dynamics. While including this effect improves the fit with the data, indicating that correlations in the behavior of individuals with similar BMI may be important for BMI dynamics, testing social transmission against other plausible unmodeled effects and interpretations remains the subject of future work. Implications of our findings on the dynamics of BMI distributions for public health interventions are discussed.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article numbere0189795
JournalPloS one
Issue number12
StatePublished - Dec 2017

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General


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