OBJECTIVES: Asians have a smaller muscle mass and a larger fat mass at the same body mass index (BMI) than most other ethnic groups. Due to a resulting higher cardiometabolic risk, the BMI cut-offs for overweight and obesity were lowered for adults. For Asian children universal criteria apply. The objectives of this study were to determine the normal BMI distribution and assess the BMI class distribution in a reference cohort of affluent South Asian children born before the obesity epidemic and to assess the influence of the obesity epidemic on the distributions. METHODS: Historical cohort study with 4350 measurements of height and weight of two cohorts (born 1974-1976 and 1991-1993) of Surinamese South Asian children living in The Netherlands, analysed with WHO Child Growth References and International Obesity Task Force (IOTF) BMI cut-offs. RESULTS: The reference cohort 1974-1976 was significantly lighter (BMI Z-score=-0.63; 95% CI -0.69 to -0.58) and more variable (SD=1.19) than WHO reference. Total thinness prevalence was exceptionally high, both in cohort 1974-1976 (WHO 38.3%; IOTF 36.4%) and 1991-1993 (WHO 23.6%; IOTF 23.9%). Overweight and obesity prevalences were low in the reference cohort (WHO respectively 6.0% and 2.1%; IOTF 5.3%, 0.9%), but much higher in cohort 1991-1993 (WHO 13.6%, 9.1%; IOTF 11.7%, 6.0%). CONCLUSIONS: The low mean BMI Z-score and high prevalence of thinness are likely expressions of the characteristic body composition of South Asians. Universal BMI cut-offs should be applied carefully in South Asian populations as thinness prevalence is likely to be overestimated and obesity underestimated. The development of ethnic specific cut-offs is recommended.