What Is Obesity? It’s a Serious Medical Condition, Not Laziness

It's not always the junk food's fault.

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Obesity and weight management isn’t an easy topic to discuss. There is much controversy surrounding obesity, especially when “fat shaming” is so pervasive. Society tells you that extra weight is “your fault,” but that you should make lifestyle changes to remedy it. Doctors, on the other hand, have developed a more nuanced view of obesity over time.

How Doctors Define Obesity

Obesity is defined as body weight that is more than what is considered normal. One way to find out if you’re overweight or even at a healthy weight is to calculate your body mass index (BMI). The BMI is a measurement based on your weight in relation to your height.

BMI is a useful measurement for doctors because it can help predict risk of certain health conditions. The greater your BMI, the greater risk you are of developing some health problems, such as type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and osteoarthritis.

The three classes of obesity are:

  • 30-34 BMI: Class 1 obesity
  • 35-39 BMI: Class 2 obesity
  • 40 and above BMI: Class 3 obesity

What Causes Obesity?

People often reduce obesity to lifestyle choices. While lifestyle choices can certainly impact weight, obesity is a much more complicated issue. There are many factors that affect weight and your health beyond your lifestyle, including:

  • Family history and genes: Obesity and being overweight can run in families, which suggests that genes can play a part.
  • Race or ethnicity: Obesity rates in American adults are highest in Black Americans, followed by Hispanic Americans.
  • Age: Adults who have a normal BMI often start to gain weight in young adulthood and continue to gain weight until they are ages 60 to 65.
  • Sex: In the United States, obesity is more common in Black or Hispanic women than in Black or Hispanic men. A person’s sex may also affect where the body stores fat. Women tend to build up fat in their hips and buttocks. Men usually build up fat in their abdomen or belly.
  • Your environment: Where you live, work, play, and worship may affect your eating and physical activity habits. It may also promote or limit your access to healthy foods and places to be active.
  • Family culture and habits: Family eating and lifestyle habits may affect a person’s weight and health. For example, some families may have eating patterns that are high in fat, salt, and added sugars. Families pass down genes, but they also pass down habits.
  • Medical conditions: Polycystic ovary syndrome and hypothyroidism are two examples of medical conditions that cause weight gain, or make it difficult to lose weight.
  • Psychological conditions: Eating disorders and chronic stress can cause weight gain. Plus, eating can become a coping mechanism for dealing with stress, anxiety, or depression. (Learn more about how chronic stress can lead to weight gain here.)
  • Certain medications: Certain types of birth control or antidepressants may make weight management more difficult.

Healthy Weight Management

To reduce your risk of certain health problems, your doctor might help you find and maintain a healthy weight. There are helpful tips for lifestyle changes, behavior programs, as well as FDA-approved medicines that can help you with your obesity. In certain cases, bariatric or metabolic surgeries may be recommended.

If you’re having trouble managing your weight, contact your primary care physician to see what options are right for you.