Medically Approved

New study debunks "healthy obesity"

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Optum Perks Author

By Optum Perks Author

Obesity in America is far more prevalent than many might think, as more than one-third of adult Americans are diagnosed with this disease. While it might seem like a diet or increased exercise could be an easy cure, the fact of the matter is that excess weight typically isn’t the only health concern to treat in these individuals.

It’s been long discussed that someone can be a “healthy” obese person, also termed metabolically healthy obese, meaning they don’t exhibit the complications that normally come with the disease yet they still meet certain body weight criteria. However, new information shows this might not be as true as the medical community once thought.

The causes and consequences of obesity are varied and it’s become an epidemic in our country. Let’s explore what this means for our health and how we can prevent obesity in our own lives.

How To Define Obesity

Your physician can take an individualized approach to determine your body mass index, also called BMI, yet many individuals are able to assess their health based on a standard BMI chart. This chart compares a person’s height to varying ranges of weight and assigns labels like “underweight” or “normal” accordingly. Each grouping has a corresponding BMI number as well.


When your BMI reaches a certain point, you might be considered “overweight” or “obese.” In general, obesity is defined as an individual with a BMI of over 30. Typically these individuals struggle with other health concerns that make their well-being more difficult to manage.

Obesity Is More Than Just Excess Weight

The causes of obesity are varied and can stem from genetics, inactive lifestyle, medication use, or dietary habits. When people view an obese individual they tend to only see the excess weight and fail to realize that this disease leads to a poor quality of life and a host of other health conditions.


People who are considered obese are at a higher risk of life-threatening conditions due to the strain on their bodily functions that extra weight can cause. Topping the list is type 2 diabetes, which can occur in up to 90% of those affected by obesity. Excess fat releases substances into the body that lead to inflammation, making it harder to regulate blood sugar levels.

Other major concerns that tend to couple with obesity include cardiovascular disease, high blood pressure, arthritis, cancer, and sleep apnea. As if the health ramifications weren’t enough, obese individuals also struggle with daily activities, as their weight can sometimes limit mobility and leads toward an isolated lifestyle.

Studies Have Debunked “Healthy Obese”

Some people who find themselves with a BMI of 30 or higher might technically be obese but do not exhibit any additional health concerns such as high cholesterol, diabetes, or high blood pressure. Physicians coined the phrasing “healthy obese” to distinguish these patients from those who might need medication or additional treatment for their conditions. Yet a British study has shown that this line of thinking might not have been accurate after all, as it's unclear of their increased risk for heart failure or stroke.


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After analyzing the health records of over 3.5 million adults who did not have heart disease yet were considered to be “healthy obese,” researchers found some surprising statistics. Compared to people with an average BMI and no health conditions, “healthy obese” individuals had a 50% higher risk of cardiovascular disease, as well as increased susceptibility to stroke, heart failure, and peripheral artery disease.

As metabolic conditions like diabetes or kidney disease increase, so do the risks for cardiovascular issues. For example, an obese person with three metabolic abnormalities has an almost three times risk of heart disease compared to a normal-weight person with no metabolic abnormalities. Once “healthy obese” individuals cross the line into patients with additional health concerns, these conditions greatly affect their overall rate of risk.

Tips For Preventing Obesity

Although genetics can sometimes play a role in developing obesity, there are healthy lifestyle choices that can make a huge impact in both preventing obesity and educating individuals who are trying to change their habits.

  • Maintaining your weight - For those who might be overweight but technically not obese, it’s not too late to keep a closer eye on the scale and set a realistic and healthy weight.
  • Stay active - No matter your age, it’s crucial to keep your body active to avoid putting on extra weight. While activity might initially be difficult when dealing with obesity, light impact activities will get your body used to the movement before you increase the intensity.
  • Eat a balanced diet - Obesity is often caused by unhealthy eating habits combined with limited exercise, so prevention of this disease starts with how you nourish your body. There are many online tools available to help you learn about balanced diets.

Obesity, unlike other diseases, can be largely shaped by how you treat your body and how you maintain your health. Whether you are overweight and want to make a change, or are obese with several metabolic conditions, it’s always a good time to make a committed effort to your well-being and longevity.