Key Takeaways

  • Obesity is defined by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) as having have a body mass index (BMI) of 30 kg or greater.

  • Carrying too much excess weight can put you at risk for a number of chronic diseases, from heart problems to type 2 diabetes.

  • There are multiple treatment options available that can help you reach a healthy weight. Consult with your doctor to determine which is right for you.

Obesity is a word most of us are familiar with, and it’s often associated with powerful perceptions and emotions. But what does it actually mean to be living with obesity? How does this condition impact a person’s health and life—and how can older adults manage their weight to promote healthy living?

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), obesity is when a person exhibits “weight that is higher than what is considered as a healthy weight for a given height.” The CDC groups weight into four different categories: underweight, normal, overweight, or obese. People who fall into the latter group have a body mass index (BMI) of 30 kg/m2 or greater. Obesity is not the same thing as being overweight, which is defined as having a BMI of 25 kg/m2 to <30 kg/m2.

Calculate your BMI here.

BMI is a general measurement, but it doesn’t take into account individual body composition or how much fat and muscle a person has. Overall health and lifestyle factors may be more important than BMI in older adults.

Managing A Healthy Lifestyle in America Today

Over the past few decades, obesity has become an epidemic in the United States. From 2017 to 2018, the age-adjusted U.S. obesity rate in adults was 42.4%.1 This condition was the biggest contributor to the nation’s chronic disease problem, making up 47.1% of the total cost of chronic diseases overall.2

While obesity in America affects all populations, it appears to impact some groups more than others. Racial and ethnic minorities have been shown to experience higher rates of obesity and other chronic diseases.1 Being severely overweight has also been linked with income level and socioeconomic status.

The Stigma Around Being Overweight

As America grows more aware of the negative implications of diet culture and promotes body positivity messages, obesity is still often viewed as a behavioral problem. People who carry significant extra weight may be falsely labeled as lazy or lacking self-control. Many deal with bias and discrimination in their personal relationships, during healthcare visits, and even in the workplace.3

The issue of excessive body weight goes much deeper than physical appearance, however. According to the CDC, people who carry extra weight are at risk for a number of serious chronic conditions such as heart disease, gallbladder disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes, and certain types of cancer. COVID-19 and obesity have also been linked, since being overweight can increase your risk of complications and severe illness from coronavirus.

People living with obesity may also experience quality-of-life issues, chronic pain, mobility issues, and depression or anxiety. Women who carry excess weight, in particular, are more likely to have a negative body image.4

In 2013, the American Medical Association (AMA) officially recognized obesity as a disease. This was a major step forward in destigmatizing the topic, though there is much more work to do. Classifying obesity as a medical issue empowered both patients and doctors to discuss it more openly and explore treatment interventions.

What Causes Obesity?

Obesity is thought to be caused by a combination of genetic and behavioral factors. These include:

  • Dietary habits
  • Physical inactivity
  • Family history
  • Certain diseases (e.g. Cushing’s disease)
  • Some medications (e.g. antidepressants)

Environmental factors may come into play as well. Many populations simply lack access to affordable, nutritious food. For example, compared to 31% of white Americans, only 8% of Black Americans live in a census tract with a supermarket. This scenario is known as being in a “food desert.”

 Treatment Options

The good news is that obesity is a preventable and treatable disease. There is a full range of treatment options to explore, including:

  • Lifestyle changes, such as eating more healthfully and incorporating more physical activity into your routine.
  • Bariatric surgery, which involves procedures that reduce the amount of food the stomach can hold. Gastric bypass is one type of bariatric surgery.
  • Anti-obesity medications.

There’s no one-size-fits-all solution for addressing obesity. Instead, the best strategy is to speak with your provider about the different options available and how you can best meet your goals for a healthy weight.

Managing obesity not only requires working closely with a healthcare provider; it depends on having insurance coverage for all treatment options. March 4 marked World Obesity Day, a global campaign that emphasizes the role of proper insurance coverage in promoting the destigmatization and mainstreaming of obesity care. This initiative is focused on helping people with this disease get access to safe, affordable, and appropriate treatments.

Times are changing, and obesity is slowly but surely gaining acceptance as a serious health condition. If you’re an older adult who is living with excess weight, hope and help are available. You have options that can enable you to reach a healthy weight, reduce your risk of chronic disease, and live a longer, happier life.


1. Hales CM, Carroll MD, Fryar CD, Ogden CL. Prevalence of obesity and severe obesity among adults: United States, 2017–2018. NCHS Data Brief, no. 360. Hyattsville, MD: National Center for Health Statistics; 2020.

2. Waters H, Graf M. America’s Obesity Crisis: The Health and Economic Costs of Excess Weight. The Milken Institute; October 2018. Accessed September 5, 2020. Found on the internet at

3. Gordon-Larson, P, and Heymsfield, S. Obesity as a disease, not a behavior. Circulation [Internet]. 2018;137(15):1543-1545 [cited 2020 May 11]. Found on the internet at

4. Weinberger, N.A., Kersting, A., Riedel-Heller, S.G., Luck-Sikorski, C. (2016). Body Dissatisfaction in Individuals with Obesity Compared to Normal-Weight Individuals: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis. Obesity Facts; 9(6): 424–441. Found on the internet at