What is obesity – is it merely about BMI?


In my earlier post “Is obesity a disease or a risk factor for other conditions”? I had highlighted that now obesity is recognised universally as ‘a chronic, relapsing, progressive disease process.’ However, misconceptions still abound about ‘what is obesity’, not only in the public at large but even among the health professionals. Traditionally, when talking about what is obesity, we tend to erroneously confuse how we measure obesity with the definition of obesity. One such popular and well-known measure of obesity, which will be discussed subsequently, is Body Mass Index (BMI). BMI However, obesity is not about BMI; at its most basic, the term obesity describes the presence of ‘excess’ fat in the body. 

Definition of obesity

In the year 1998, WHO defined obesity as under:

“A condition of abnormal or excessive body fat accumulation, to the extent that health may be impaired.”

In the year 2010, Scottish Intercollegiate Guidelines Network, part of the NHS Quality Improvement Scotland, described obesity as under:

“Obesity is defined as a disease process characterised by excessive body fat accumulation with multiple organ-specific consequences.”

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Is obesity a disease or a risk factor for other conditions?


As I begin writing about obesity on my blog, I want to start by addressing a fundamental question – Is obesity a disease? Or it is primarily a risk factor for other conditions rather than a disease in its own right? What is obesity? The issue has been historically debated. The need to address this question has been warranted by the emergence of obesity as a global epidemic and its implications for health. Chronic Diseases: the Silent Killers.

Obesity bias or weight bias - a hidden harm
Obesity bias or weight bias.

Magnitude of obesity

Before we address the question, is obesity a disease? let us consider the prevalence of obesity globally. As per WHO data, worldwide obesity has tripled since 1975. In 2016, more than 1.9 billion adults, 18 years and older, were overweight. Of these 650 million were obese. In terms of percentage, these figures translate to 39% and 13% respectively, of adults aged 18 years and over. As will be discussed in subsequent posts, obesity is responsible for the growing prevalence of various lifestyle diseases. As a result, obesity has come to be regarded as “the single greatest threat to public health for this century.” More worryingly, childhood obesity has been growing at a menacing pace. As per WHO, 41 million children under the age of 5 were overweight or obese in 2016. Over 340 million children and adolescents were overweight or obese in 2016. Almost half of all overweight children under 5 lived in Asia and one quarter lived in Africa.

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