Skip to main content

Thank you for visiting You are using a browser version with limited support for CSS. To obtain the best experience, we recommend you use a more up to date browser (or turn off compatibility mode in Internet Explorer). In the meantime, to ensure continued support, we are displaying the site without styles and JavaScript.

Is obesity a disease?


BACKGROUND: There is disagreement about whether obesity should be considered a disease, as can be seen by inconsistent usage and the advocacy of conflicting views in popular and scholarly articles. However, neither writers who refer to obesity as a disease nor those who question whether it is a disease have generally provided a definition of disease and then offered evidence that obesity does or does not fit the definition.

METHOD: The characteristics of obesity were examined to determine whether they fit the common and recurring elements of definitions of disease taken from a sample of authoritative English language dictionaries.

FINDINGS AND INTERPRETATIONS: Obesity, defined as a body mass index (BMI, kg/m2) or percentage body fat in excess of some cut-off value, though clearly a threat to health and longevity, lacks a universal concomitant group of symptoms or signs and the impairment of function which characterize disease according to traditional definitions. While it might nevertheless be possible to achieve a social consensus that it is a disease despite its failure to fit traditional models of disease, the merits of such a goal are questionable. Labeling obesity a disease may be expedient but it is not a necessary step in a campaign to combat obesity and it may be interpreted as self-serving advocacy without a sound scientific basis.

This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution

Relevant articles

Open Access articles citing this article.

Access options

Rent or buy this article

Prices vary by article type



Prices may be subject to local taxes which are calculated during checkout


  1. Van Voris B . Fen-Phen Suits Grow The National Law Journal 1997; December 1

  2. Eckel R . Obesity joins smoking and high cholesterol as official link to heart disease Reuters News Service, 1998; June 1, 4:56 p.m. EDT, Washington

  3. Medeva Pharmaceuticals Statement on Obesity Treatment Medication and Importance of Physician-Patient Dialogue PR Newswire 1997

  4. Hamilton MA . The treatment of obesity: let's move forward, not backwards Duke Fitness Center Digest 1997 9: 1–4.

    Google Scholar 

  5. Dialogues in obesity University of Minnesota Office of Continuing Medical Education November 1997

  6. Bray G . Drug treatment of obesity: don't throw the baby out with the bath water Am J Clin Nutr 1998 67: 1–2.

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  7. Hill JO . Dealing with obesity as a chronic disease Obes Res 1998 6 (Suppl 1): 34S–38S.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  8. Blackburn GL, Grand RJ, Licht DJ et al. Letters to the editor New Engl J Med 1998 338: 1702.

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  9. Johannes L, Stecklow S . Dire warnings about obesity rely on slippery statistic The Wall Street Journal 1998; 9 February

  10. Jennings D . The confusion between disease and illness in clinical medicine Can Med Assoc J 1986 135: 865–870.

    CAS  Google Scholar 

  11. Kassirer PJ, Angell M . Losing weight—an ill-fated New Year's resolution New Engl J Med 1998 338: 52–54.

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  12. Hawks SR, Gast J . Weight loss management: a path lit darkly Health Educ Behav 1998 25: 371–382.

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  13. Tremblay A, Doucet E . Obesity: a disease or a biological adaptation? Obes Rev 2000 1: 27–35.

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  14. Health implications of obesity National Institutes of Health Consensus Development Conference Statement 11–13 February, 1985

  15. World Health Organization . International classification of diseases 9th revision (ICD-9) Geneva: WHO 1977

  16. World Health Organization . International statistical classification of diseases and related health problems, 10th Revision (ICD-10) Geneva: WHO 1992.

  17. Obesity: preventing and managing the global epidemic Report of a WHO Consultation on Obesity, 3–5 June 1997 Geneva: WHO

  18. Thomas PR (ed). Weighing the options: criteria for evaluating weight-management programs/Committee to develop criteria for evaluating the outcomes of approaches to prevent and treat obesity. Food and Nutrition Board, Institute of Medicine Washington, DC: National Academy Press 1995.

  19. Bray GA, Bouchard C, James WPT . Definitions and proposed current classification of obesity. In: Bray GA, Bouchard C, James WPT (eds) Handbook of obesity. Marcel Dekker: New York 1998 pp 31–40.

    Google Scholar 

  20. St Jeor ST . New trends in weight management J Am Diet Assoc 1997 97: 1096–1098.

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  21. Oxford English dictionary Clarendon Press: Oxford 1989

  22. Webster's third new international dictionary Merriam-Webster: Springfield, MA 1993

  23. Stedman's medical dictionary, 26th edn Williams & Wilkins: Baltimore, MD 1995

  24. The Oxford medical companion. Oxford University Press: New York 1994

  25. The new Encyclopedia Britannica, 15th edn Encyclopedia Britannica: Chicago, IL 1987

  26. American heritage dictionary of the English language, 3rd edn Houghton Mifflin: Boston, MA 1992

  27. Random house dictionary of the English language. Random House: New York 1987

  28. International dictionary of medicine and biology. John Wiley: New York 1986

  29. Dorland's illustrated medical dictionary, 28th edn WB Saunders: Philadelphia, PA 1994

  30. Black's medical dictionary, 38th edn Barnes & Noble Books: Lanham, MD 1996

  31. Clinical guidelines on the identification, evaluation and treatment of overweight and obesity in adults. National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute 1998

  32. Pi-Sunyer FX . Medical hazards of obesity Ann Intern Med 1993 119: 655–660.

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  33. Troiano RP, Frongillo EA Jr, Sobal J, Levitsky DA . The relationship between body weight and mortality: a quantitative analysis of combined information from existing studies Int J Obes Relat Metab Disord 1996 20: 63–75.

    CAS  Google Scholar 

  34. Stevens J, Cai J, Pamuk ER, Williamson DF, Thun MJ, Wood JL . The effect of age on the association between body-mass index and mortality New Engl J Med 1998 338: 1–7.

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  35. Heymsfield SB, Allison DB, Heshka S, Pierson RN Jr . Assessment of human body composition. In: Allison DB (ed) Handbook of assessment methods for eating behaviors and weight-related problems Sage: Thousand Oaks, CA; 1995 pp 515–560.

    Google Scholar 

  36. Kral JG . Morbid obesity and related health risks Ann Intern Med 1985 103: 1043–1047.

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  37. Yuker HE, Allison DB . Obesity: sociocultural perspectives In: Alexander-Mott L, Lumsden BC (eds). Understanding eating disorders. Taylor & Francis: Washington, DC 1994 243–270.

    Google Scholar 

  38. Merskey H . Variable meanings for the definition of disease J Med Phil 1986 11: 215–232.

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  39. Wylie CM . The definition and measurement of health and disease Public Health Reports 1970 85: 100–104.

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  40. Emson HE . Health, disease and illness: matters for definition Can Med Assoc J 1987 136: 811–813.

    CAS  Google Scholar 

  41. Kottow MH . A medical definition of disease Med Hypoth 1980 6: 209–213.

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  42. Szasz TS . What counts as disease? Can Med Assoc J 1986 135: 859–860.

    CAS  Google Scholar 

  43. Williamson DF, Venkat Narayan KM, Teutsch SM . The economic impact of obesity in the United States: whither? Obes Res 1998 6: 173–175.

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

Download references


This work was supported in part by a grant from the NIH (P30DK26687) to the New York Obesity Research Center.

Author information

Authors and Affiliations


Corresponding author

Correspondence to S Heshka.

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Cite this article

Heshka, S., Allison, D. Is obesity a disease?. Int J Obes 25, 1401–1404 (2001).

Download citation

  • Received:

  • Accepted:

  • Published:

  • Issue Date:

  • DOI:


  • disease
  • nomenclature
  • disease classification

This article is cited by


Quick links