Is Obesity a Disease?

By Irmanie Hemphill, MD, FAAFP
Medically reviewed checkmarkMedically reviewed
November 30, 2022

Key takeaways

  • The American Medical Association (AMA) officially recognized obesity as a disease in 2013.

  • The 2013 decision went against the recommendation of the AMA Council on Science and Public Health not to classify obesity as a disease.

  • Though obesity is recognized as a disease by the AMA, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and others, its classification continues to spark debate in the medical community.

Obesity is a weight classification based on the body mass index (BMI), a ratio of height to weight expressed by a numerical value. In 2013, the American Medical Association (AMA) recognized obesity as a disease, going against the recommendation of the association’s Council on Science and Public Health. This decision continues to be a subject of debate for many experts in the medical community.

Read on to learn more about the arguments for and against this controversial diagnosis, as well as common causes and prevention tips. 

Is Obesity a Disease?

Obesity is recognized as a disease by many health organizations, including the American Medical Association (AMA) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Still, many experts, including the AMA’s Council on Science and Public Health, argue that obesity is not a disease.

Financial and public health implications are two critical reasons for this debate. Once recognized as a disease, it’s easier for providers and patients to be reimbursed by insurers for treatments associated with obesity.

Obesity is linked to a higher risk of several health problems, including heart disease, high cholesterol, type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, and more. Supporters of recognizing obesity as a disease contend that the designation prioritizes treatment and management of these conditions and will help improve public health outcomes.

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Measuring and diagnosing obesity relies on the body mass index (BMI), a flawed and sometimes inaccurate tool that ignores the modern understanding of body composition. The BMI was developed in the 1800s by Adolphe Quetelet, a Belgian statistician, astronomer, and sociologist—not a physician or medical expert. He created the BMI to identify common characteristics of what Quetelet believed to be the “ideal man” on a population level.

He gathered data from white Western European men, excluding data from people of color and women. Those against classifying obesity as a disease cite the lack of a reliable measure of obesity, the absence of characteristic symptoms of obesity, and the lack of evidence that obesity and mortality are directly linked.

Many believe that recognizing obesity as a disease also helps reduce the stigma associated with the condition. When acknowledged as a real and serious disease, it may be easier for people to seek help without feeling shame or embarrassment.

But for those who struggle with weight, the diagnosis of obesity can be overwhelming and discouraging rather than motivating. Research suggests weight stigma results in negative health outcomes, leading to higher rates of depression, anxiety, diabetes, and other chronic conditions.

The classification of obesity as a disease is a complicated and nuanced topic. Though evidence shows obesity is associated with a higher risk of several serious health conditions, experts remain divided on whether it should continue to be considered a disease.   

Causes of Obesity

Obesity has many causes, and several factors may contribute to its development. However, research has found that obesity is highly heritable, meaning it may be passed down through genes.

Additional causes that can contribute to the development of obesity include:

  • Reduced physical activity or exercise
  • Insomnia (a disorder marked by difficulty falling and/or staying asleep)
  • Endocrine disorders
  • Medications
  • Living in a food desert
  • Decreased energy metabolism

Tips for Preventing Obesity

Obesity isn’t always preventable, primarily when driven by biological and genetic factors. However, there are some lifestyle strategies you can make to prevent obesity and support overall health.

Monitor your weight

Keep track of your weight and watch for any sudden changes. If you notice a significant increase in weight, make an appointment with your doctor to discuss potential causes and prevention strategies.

Eat a healthy diet

A well-rounded diet can support your health in many ways, including managing weight. Focus on whole foods like whole wheat, grains, fruits, vegetables, legumes, nuts, and lean meats. Limit foods that are ultra-processed and high in added sugars. If you’re unsure how to incorporate a healthy diet into your routine, reach out to your healthcare provider or a registered dietician for guidance.

Be physically active

Physical activity is an excellent way to support your health and manage weight. Experts recommend at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise per week. This can include activities like brisk walking, swimming, or biking. You can also break exercise into smaller chunks throughout the week, such as 30 minutes five days out of the week.

Limit screen time

Limiting screen time can help keep you physically active throughout the day. It also supports mental and emotional health. Attempt to limit your screen time to no more than two hours per day and try to find meaningful activities to fill your free time.

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Get enough sleep

Insomnia is a risk factor for obesity. Make sure you’re getting enough sleep by maintaining a regular sleep schedule and creating a relaxing bedtime routine. Most adults need between 7 and 8 hours of sleep per night. Limiting screen time before bed can also help you fall asleep more easily.

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Frequently Asked Questions

Is obesity a disease?
The answer to this question is complicated. Obesity is associated with a higher risk of serious health conditions, such as heart disease, stroke, and type 2 diabetes. However, experts remain divided on whether obesity should continue to be considered a disease. While the American Medical Association now classifies obesity as a disease, not all organizations have followed suit.
When did obesity become a disease?
Obesity was recognized as a disease by the American Medical Association (AMA) in 2013. Today, other medical organizations also acknowledge obesity as a disease, including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the National Institute of Health (NIH).
Who recognizes obesity as a disease?
The American Medical Association (AMA), Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and the National Institutes of Health (NIH) recognize obesity as a disease.

K Health articles are all written and reviewed by MDs, PhDs, NPs, or PharmDs and are for informational purposes only. This information does not constitute and should not be relied on for professional medical advice. Always talk to your doctor about the risks and benefits of any treatment.

Irmanie Hemphill, MD, FAAFP

Dr. Hemphill is an award winning primary care physician with an MD from Florida State University College of Medicine. She completed her residency at Halifax Medical Center.

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