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Obesity is a term used to describe excess body fat. It is a common problem, estimated to affect around one in every four adults and around one in every five children aged 10 to 11 in the UK.

There are many ways in which a person's health in relation to their weight can be classified, but the most widely used method is Body Mass Index (BMI), as explained below.

There are many consequences of excess weight on self esteem, individual and family health and on the economy. Excess weight takes years to develop and takes time to be lost.

Causes of obesity are complex and are as a consequence of the modern lifestyle where high calorie, energy dense foods, labour-saving techniques abound.

Causes of obesity

Obesity is generally caused by consuming more calories than you burn off through physical activity. The excess energy, usually consumed through fatty and sugary energy dense foods; is stored by the body as fat.

Modern lifestyles promote consumption of cheap, high-calorie food and spending a lot of time sitting at desks, on sofas or in cars.

There are also some underlying health conditions that can occasionally contribute to weight gain, such as an underactive thyroid gland (hypothyroidism), although conditions such as this don’t usually cause weight problems if they are effectively controlled with medication. Read more about the causes of obesity.

Read more about losing weight and eating healthily.

How to measure

BMI is the most commonly used measure of excess body fat in relation to your height.

For most adults:

  • an ideal BMI is in the 18.5 to 24.9 range
  • a BMI of 25 to 29.9 means you are considered overweight
  • a BMI of 30 to 39.9 means you are considered obese
  • a BMI of 40 or above means you are considered severely obese

You can use the BMI healthy weight calculator to work out your score.

However, BMI has its limitations as a measure of body fat. As an example, it needs to be interpreted with caution for people with higher muscle-mass (e.g. athletes). Also, some population groups, such as Asians have disease risk factors which would be of concern at lower BMIs, and for older people at higher BMIs. Hence lower BMI thresholds are recommended for these populations.

Waist circumference can be used as an additional measure in people who are overweight (with a BMI of 25 to 29.9) or moderately obese (with a BMI of 30 to 34.9).

Generally, men with a waist circumference of 94cm or more and women with a waist circumference of 80cm or more are more likely to develop obesity-related health problems.

Risks of excess weight and obesity

Taking steps to tackle obesity is important because, in addition to causing obvious physical changes, it can lead to a number of serious and potentially life-threatening conditions, such as:

Read more about the complications of obesity.

Last reviewed: 25/06/2018

Useful links

Nhs Choices Mend

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