Major medical organizations consider obesity a chronic disease, while some medical professionals and associations may disagree. Obesity may increase the chance of developing health conditions like heart disease and diabetes.

In general, obesity refers to excessive fat in the body, also known as adipose tissue. Sometimes doctors may use the term “adiposity.” This term describes the state of excess fat tissue in the body.

The American Medical Association (AMA) recognizes obesity as a disease that involves genetic, metabolic, and behavioral aspects that require medical support. The decision was initially made in 2013 and confirmed in 2023.

Despite a lack of consensus on the diagnostic criteria for obesity, the AMA stated it released this new definition to positively affect the healthcare system, public policies, and people living with obesity.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) also considers obesity a serious chronic disease that demands prevention and intervention strategies in children and adults.

The debate continues in some medical circles and other countries, such as the United Kingdom. Here are a few reasons that keep some medical experts from defining obesity as a disease:

  • A lack of diagnostic criteria: Classifying a condition as a disease implies certain standards and criteria must be met for its diagnosis. Obesity doesn’t have any characteristic or unique symptoms, and it doesn’t always lead to the same body function impairments. The lack of consistent diagnostic criteria may make it more difficult to categorize obesity as a disease.
  • Inconsistent measurement standards: Because indexes and standards to measure obesity don’t apply to everyone, such as endurance athletes and weightlifters, doctors can’t always use those to diagnose obesity. In other words, weighing more doesn’t always mean obesity is present.
  • Overall health as a factor: Obesity affects the body in many ways and may increase the risk of medical conditions like heart disease and diabetes, but not everyone with obesity develops health challenges or symptoms. Also, not everyone with health challenges develops obesity.
  • Patient responsibility and public policies: Some people may worry that categorizing obesity as a disease may take responsibility away from the person and promote a feeling that lifestyle guidelines won’t help as much if they have the disease. Instead, some people may tend to rely on weight loss medications or medical interventions to lose weight. Public and insurance policies may be modified to fit these changes.
  • Increased discrimination may be a consequence: Some groups, such as the Fat Acceptance at Every Size movement and the International Size Acceptance Association, have expressed concern that defining obesity as a disease allows others to further separate and classify persons based on weight parameters.

A word on weight stigma

Although studies often suggest that obesity is a risk factor for certain health conditions, they rarely account for the role weight stigma and discrimination play in health. Discrimination is one of the social determinants of health — the conditions in daily life that affect a person’s health — and it can and does contribute to health inequities.

Weight discrimination in healthcare can prevent people with high body weights from seeking medical care — and those who do may not receive accurate diagnoses or treatment because doctors may attribute their health concerns solely to their weight.

As a result, any health condition a person may have may be more advanced by the time they receive a diagnosis.

Meanwhile, experiences of weight stigma in daily life, even outside of medical settings, are associated with negative mental and physical health outcomes.

Everyone deserves appropriate and compassionate healthcare. For resources, including a growing directory of weight-inclusive healthcare professionals, you may want to follow the work of the Association for Size Diversity and Health.

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Doctors may use types of body fat, total body weight, body height, and body build to decide if obesity is present. Two common measurements are body mass index (BMI) and waist circumference.

Body mass index

BMI is your body weight divided by your square of height. Doctors may use BMI to assign one of these weight categories:

  • underweight (low BMI)
  • standard weight
  • overweight
  • obesity (high BMI)

A common formula for calculating BMI is dividing your body weight in pounds by your height in inches squared, multiplied by 703. This converts the measurement to the unit of BMI in kilograms per meter squared (kg/m2).

For example, if you’re 5’6″ tall and weigh 150 pounds, your BMI is 24.2 kg/m2. Usually, your BMI score is the number only.

A BMI calculator like the one Diabetes Canada or the CDC provides can help determine your BMI.

The American Society for Metabolic and Bariatric Surgery defines three classes of obesity based on BMI:

  • class I obesity: 30–34.9
  • class II obesity, or serious obesity: 35–39.9
  • class III obesity, or severe obesity: 40 and higher

Waist circumference

A healthcare professional may consider you have central obesity if your waist circumference is wide or your waist-to-hip ratio is high, even if your BMI is in the “overweight” category.

Excess abdominal fat, relative to the rest of your body, may lead to a greater risk of health complications, even if your BMI doesn’t indicate obesity.

According to the CDC, a person has a greater chance of obesity-related conditions when their waist circumference is more than 40 inches for males and 35 inches for females.

You can find your waist circumference by measuring your waist just above your hip bones.

BMI and waist-to-hip ratio are only estimates of body fat and may not always help to establish whether someone lives with obesity. For example, some bodybuilders and performance athletes have a muscular composition that may lead to a BMI that falls in the range of obesity.

Some medical and health organizations like the CDC and AMA define obesity as a chronic disease. The goal of this definition is to develop clear strategies that help prevent and treat obesity-related health complications.

Other medical experts, private associations, and countries may disagree or feel hesitant about defining obesity as a disease. Reasons include the risk of increasing weight stigma, the lack of diagnostic criteria, and individual health differences in people with obesity.

Research and clinical evidence suggest overweight and obesity tend to increase the risk of health complications, including diabetes, heart disease, and sleep apnea. Still, there are no unique characteristics or symptoms that doctors can attribute to obesity.