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Open Access Research article

Body mass index, sexual behaviour, and sexually transmitted infections : an analysis using the NHANES 1999–2000 data

Nico JD Nagelkerke12*, Roos MD Bernsen1, Sema K Sgaier3 and Prabhat Jha3

Author Affiliations

1 Department of Community Medicine, United Arab Emirates University, Al Ain, UAE

2 Department of Medical Microbiology, University of Manitoba, Winnipeg, Canada

3 Centre for Global Health Research, St Michael's Hospital, Toronto, Canada

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BMC Public Health 2006, 6:199  doi:10.1186/1471-2458-6-199

Published: 2 August 2006



Factors determining human sexual behaviour are not completely understood, but are important in the context of sexually transmitted disease epidemiology and prevention. Being obese is commonly associated with a reduced physical attractiveness but the associations between body mass index, sexual behaviour and the risk of acquiring sexually transmitted infections has never been studied.


The National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) files of 1999–2000 were used. Linear regression was used to relate the reported number of sex partners in the last year and lifetime to Body Mass Index (BMI). Logistic regression was used to relate Herpes Simplex Virus type II (HSV-2) antibodies to BMI and other variables.


Data on 979 men and 1250 women were available for analysis. Obese (mean number of partners for men:1.12, women: 0.93) and overweight (mean for men: 1.38, women: 1.03) individuals reported fewer partners than individuals of normal BMI (mean for men:2.00, women: 1.15) in the last year (p < .0.01 & p < 0.05 for men, p < 0.05 & n.s. for women). The same relationship held for lifetime partners in men (mean 11.94, 18.80, and 22.08 for obese, overweight and normal BMI respectively (p < 0.05 & n.s. for obese and overweight vs normal respectively), but not in women (mean 7.96, 4.77, and 5.24 respectively). HSV-2 antibodies were significantly correlated with the number of lifetime partners in both men and women, with the odds of being HSV-2 positive increasing by 0.6% (p < 0.01) and 2.7% (p < 0.01) for men and women respectively. HSV-2 antibodies increased with age, even after adjustment for lifetime partners (p < 0.01). Being obese (HSV-2 prevalence 15.9 and 34.9% for men and women respectively) or overweight (HSV-2 prevalence 16.7 and 29.3 for men and women respectively) was not associated with HSV-2 antibodies (HSV-2 prevalence for normal BMI: 15.6 and 23.2% respectively), independent of whether the association was adjusted for life time sexual partners or not. There was evidence of substantial misreporting of sexual behaviour.


Obese and overweight individuals, especially men, self report fewer sex partners than individuals of normal weight, but surprisingly this is not reflected in their risk of HSV-2 infection. HSV-2 antibodies provide information not contained in self-reported number of partners and may better estimate sexual risk than self-reported behaviour.