Healthcare professionals often use body mass index (BMI), which is a measurement of body fat based on height and weight, to define overweight and obesity.

Weight is sometimes considered an indicator of health because having overweight or obesity is associated with certain health conditions.

According to the World Health Organization and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), a BMI of 25 to less than 30 places a person in the overweight category, while a BMI of 30 or higher classifies a person as having obesity.

However, there are issues with BMI, and many experts have called for a better way of measuring weight.

Even the CDC explains that BMI can’t actually measure body fat because it can’t distinguish between muscle, fat, and bone mass. As a result, many professional athletes may be classified as having obesity based on their BMI, despite having low body fat.

Body fat percentage (BPF) is considered a more accurate way to define obesity.

Generally, a BPF of 30% or more for women or 25% or more for men indicates obesity — but these percentages are controversial.

You’ll notice that the language used to share stats and other data points is pretty binary, fluctuating between the use of “male” and “female” and “men” and “women.”

Although we typically avoid language like this, specificity is key when reporting on research participants and clinical findings.

Unfortunately, the studies and surveys referenced in this article didn’t report data on, or include, participants who were transgender, nonbinary, gender nonconforming, genderqueer, agender, or genderless.

In a medical setting, “overweight” and “obesity” are used to describe how much body fat a person has.

However, body fat isn’t always measured in a doctor’s office, and people may be told they have overweight or obesity based on their appearance, weight, or BMI.

Overweight and obesity are often associated with negative health outcomes. For example, obesity may be associated with heart disease.

However, this doesn’t mean that a high BMI always indicates a health issue.

A large 2014 review found that between 6% and 75% of people who have obesity are metabolically healthy, showing no signs of high cholesterol, high blood pressure, insulin resistance, or heart disease.

Similarly, people with moderate body weight may also be at high risk for developing conditions such as heart disease and diabetes, which are typically associated with weight gain.

In one 2016 study, researchers followed the participants for an average of 19 years. They concluded that metabolically unhealthy people with lower body weights were twice as likely to develop diabetes as metabolically healthy people who had obesity or overweight.

Although health risks are associated with having overweight or obesity, it’s not clear to what extent health conditions are caused by body fat and whether medical discrimination may play a role in poor health outcomes for larger people.

The authors of a 2018 article explain that weight bias can be harmful in itself. People who have experienced weight-related discrimination in medical settings are more likely to avoid seeking preventive care and other screenings.

As a 2019 article points out, an overemphasis on weight may cause medical professionals to misdiagnose a condition or miss other diagnoses, leading to a lack of appropriate treatment for people who have overweight or obesity.

Lastly, promoting weight loss as a one-size-fits-all solution to underlying health conditions can be misguided and often dangerous.

Being pushed to lose weight can cause people to develop disordered eating patterns, which can be both mentally and physically unhealthy.

Other risk factors may have a stronger correlation to health outcomes. In other words, there may be better ways to measure your risk for various health conditions rather than focusing on BMI.

These indicators can include:

  • Blood pressure: High blood pressure is associated with heart disease and stroke.
  • Insulin and blood sugar level: These indicators can indicate whether you’re at risk of developing diabetes. They can be measured with a glucose or insulin test.
  • Cholesterol levels: High cholesterol levels may lead to heart disease.
  • Substance use: This includes your use of tobacco, alcohol, and other drugs.
  • Family history: Many diseases have a genetic component. Having close relatives with certain health conditions can mean you’re at risk of developing them too.
  • Exercise: Regular exercise can reduce your risk of developing a range of mental and physical conditions. Here’s a helpful guide to starting exercise.
  • Diet and nutrition: What you eat plays a major role in health outcomes, whether you tend to gain weight or not. Having access to nutritious foods is essential for health.
  • Access to quality healthcare: Having access to medical care means that you’re more likely to get quality treatment and medical advice. It also means you’re more likely to receive diagnoses at an early stage.

Some of these indicators, such as your family history, are out of your control. But you may be able to change some other risk factors.

It may be more helpful to focus on the habits you can change and work with what’s possible for you.

Although many people may believe that weight is the most important indicator of health, there are many other indicators that are worth paying attention to.

Navigating the doctor’s office can be difficult for people who are perceived as having overweight or obesity. But regardless of your weight, you are entitled to compassionate, respectful medical care.

If you’re specifically looking for advice on weight management, you might want to consult a specialist — for example, a registered dietitian if you need advice on eating in a way that works for your body.

A doctor who specializes in weight loss is called a bariatric doctor, or bariatrician. But keep in mind that losing weight alone won’t automatically minimize your risk for health conditions such as heart disease.

If your clinician advises you to lose weight, ask them if they have any specific recommendations for a diet or exercise routine or if they can refer you to someone who might be able to help with this.

If you feel that your clinician is focusing too much on your weight when you need a different kind of treatment, call their attention back to the issue at hand. It’s OK to say, “I’m not comfortable discussing my weight with you. Can we return to the topic of my health condition?”

The difference between overweight and obesity is determined by BMI: a BMI of 25 to less than 30 indicates overweight, and a BMI of 30 or higher indicates obesity.

Overweight and obesity are associated with certain health conditions. However, not everyone with a high BMI is unhealthy, and weight is not the only indicator of health.

Other health indicators, such as healthcare access, lifestyle habits, and family history, should also be considered.

Sian Ferguson is a freelance health and cannabis writer based in Cape Town, South Africa. She’s passionate about empowering readers to take care of their mental and physical health through science-based, empathetically delivered information.