Person standing on bathroom scale and wondering about the difference when it comes to being overweight vs. obese

Overweight vs. Obese: Differences & Considerations

Medically reviewed on Aug 14, 2023 by Jillian Foglesong Stabile, MD, FAAFP. To give you technically accurate, evidence-based information, content published on the Everlywell blog is reviewed by credentialed professionals with expertise in medical and bioscience fields.

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Despite the prevalent stigma surrounding being overweight, weight issues are extremely common. The National Institutes of Health estimate that about 1 in 3 American adults are overweight, while 2 in 5 have obesity. [1]

While both excess weight and obesity relate to body mass, the two are distinct when it comes to how they are diagnosed and the numerous adverse health conditions they can cause. That said, treatment for both issues revolves around the same principle: losing weight, and cultivating the healthy habits needed to maintain a healthy body mass.

If you’re one of the many Americans who struggle with their weight, know that moving in a healthier direction is possible. Understanding how excess weight impacts your health and how you can build a foundation for total health and weight management is the first step in supporting your body beyond numbers on a scale.

Overweight vs. Obese: Who Qualifies?

Being diagnosed as overweight or obese is more complicated than stepping on a scale. Most healthcare providers assess weight-related health concerns using the BMI system. BMI stands for body mass index. [2] This is measured by taking a person’s weight and it dividing it by their square height in meters.2 BMI does not calculate body fat. [2]

Healthcare providers typically use the following BMI benchmarks to assess patients [3]:

  • Underweight – BMI of 18.5 or less
  • Healthy weight – BMI of 18.5 to <25
  • Overweight – BMI of 25 to <30
  • Obese – BMI of 30 and over

Because of concerns surrounding escalating obesity trends in the US, the condition is divided into several sub-classes. These escalate according to severity and include [3]:

  • Class 1 – BMI of 30 to <35
  • Class 2 – BMI of 35 to <40
  • Class 3 – BMI of 40 and over

While BMI is the most current evaluation system for identifying potential weight-related health risks, it isn’t without criticism. BMI is not considered a diagnostic mode for identifying health issues; many medical professionals suggest that far more factors affect health than BMI alone. [3]

So, if you fall into the “overweight” category, it’s possible your healthcare provider may not find any other health risks associated with excess weight. That said, if your weight is concerning to you, there are healthy ways to achieve sustainable weight loss that may significantly improve your physical health and quality of life.

Effects of Being Overweight or Obese On Health and Well-Being

When the body carries excess weight, it can increase the risk of health hazards that affect multiple systems of the body. The following are some of the most urgent conditions affecting people who are overweight or obese.

Type 2 Diabetes

One of the greatest concerns for overweight and obese people is the heightened risk of developing type 2 diabetes. This is an irreversible health condition driven by insulin insensitivity. Insulin is a hormone that enables your body to use and regulate blood sugar. Being overweight can lead to insulin resistance, which is an increased risk in the development of this health condition.

Type 2 diabetes is linked with a variety of other illnesses, including but not limited to [4]:

  • Heart disease
  • Kidney disease
  • Eye conditions
  • Nerve damage
  • Stroke

Type 2 diabetes can be managed, but it can alter a person’s way of life. Fortunately, recent developments in the medical field have increased accessibility to medications (e.g. Mounjaro®) that can help treat type 2 diabetes while promoting weight loss.

Metabolic Disorders

The connection between obesity and metabolic disorders is an area of mounting interest in the medical research community.5 Some metabolic disorders linked to obesity include [6]:

  • Non-alcoholic fatty liver disease
  • Type 2 diabetes
  • Kidney disease
  • Certain cancers

Metabolic syndrome is currently one of the most pressing concerns for healthcare providers and medical researchers. [7] This refers to a cross-circuit of comorbid health conditions, including [7]:

  • High blood sugar (hyperglycemia)
  • High blood pressure (hypertension)
  • High cholesterol and triglyceride levels
  • Excess body fat, especially around the abdomen and waist

People who are obese and favor a sedentary lifestyle are the most likely to develop metabolic syndrome.7 However, even when metabolic syndrome does not occur, people who are obese have a high risk of developing chronic health conditions. [6]

Cardiovascular Illness

Heart disease is closely associated with both overweight and obese people.4 It’s often connected to hypertension (high blood pressure), which overweight and obese people have an increased risk of developing.

Fortunately, heart disease is one health risk that can be significantly decreased by losing a relatively small amount of weight compared with your body size. Even a 5% or 10% reduction in body weight may promote cardiovascular health by reducing physical stress on the heart. [4]

Certain Cancers

Cancer can be another health problem associated with excess body weight. Some forms of cancer are more common in obese people. These include [8]:

  • Endometrial cancer – 7 times more likely in obese people; 2 to 4 times more likely in obese or overweight people.
  • Esophageal adenocarcinoma (cancer of the esophagus) – 4.8 times more likely in people who are severely obese and 1.5 times more likely in overweight people.
  • Upper stomach cancer (gastric cardia) – 2 times more likely in obese people.
  • Liver cancer – 2 times more likely in both overweight and obese people.
  • Kidney cancer – 2 times more likely in both overweight and obese people.

In total, healthcare providers recognize 13 forms of cancer are linked with obesity.8 People assigned female at birth (AFAB) who are obese or overweight are also more likely to develop female-associated forms of cancer, like breast or ovarian cancer. [7]

The link between excess weight or obesity and cancer is not fully understood. The mechanisms responsible for causing cancer in people with excess weight are still being researched. However, it’s theorized that the connection could be caused by several factors [8]:

  • People with obesity frequently show signs of inflammatory illness, which is closely linked to cancer activity
  • Fat tissue emits extra estrogen in the body, which can accelerate cancer growth, especially in AFAB populations
  • Fat cells play a major role in cell growth, which may contribute to the proliferation of cancerous cells

Reproductive Conditions

People who carry excess weight are more likely to develop reproductive disorders.9 People AFAB are particularly vulnerable to fertility challenges.10 In people assigned male at birth (AMAB), excess weight can negatively affect sperm count and quality. [11]

The effect of excessive body fat on reproductive function is highly complex and can adversely impact fertility at all points in the reproductive cycle.10 It may suspend an AFAB person’s ability to ovulate or cause complications during the birthing process.10 It can also cause infertility. [10]

Fortunately, weight loss can largely restore fertility in the majority of cases. [10]

Mental Illness

Both being overweight and obese are associated with having poorer mental health and a lower quality of life. [12] Individuals carrying excess weight are more likely to experience depression and anxiety. [12]

Losing weight does not always relieve psychological struggles completely. However, it can take care of a major physical factor in well-being, making it easier to address stressors and cultivate a sense of total well-being.

Overweight vs. Obese: Comparing Treatment Plans

Understanding overweight and obesity risk factors is the first step to finding the right treatment. The key difference between overweight vs. obese treatment plans is whether any chronic conditions resulting from excess weight require treatment. A trusted healthcare provider can evaluate your overall physical health and assess whether interventions beyond weight loss are needed.

Beyond that, treatments for being overweight or obese are focused on [13]:

  • Making regular exercise a habit – Obesity and being overweight are associated with sedentary lifestyles. Human beings need daily movement to maintain physical and mental well-being. Even making a brisk walk around your neighborhood or light physical activity a daily routine can help offset excess weight.
  • Changing diet and eating patterns – Weight gain can result from both what you eat and how you eat. A diet full of highly processed, sugary, or fatty foods can result in a high BMI. Moreover, eating habits like late-night or emotional eating can lead to weight gain. Part of healthy eating habits is ensuring a balanced healthy food diet.
  • Establishing a mental support system – It can be very difficult for some people to change their eating habits alone. This is especially true if these habits provide emotional relief or if a person has had them for a long time. Many people who struggle with their weight lean on support groups or therapists to help them revise old eating patterns. Finding community can be key for laying the foundation of sustainable well-being.

In some cases, a healthcare provider may recommend procedures like bariatric surgery to help you lose weight. Bariatric surgeries structurally modify your digestive system to assist with weight loss.

More recently, weight loss medications have been developed as a tool to support people looking to lose weight without surgery. Each type of medication is different, but most work by interacting with hormones affecting your body’s metabolism and digestion.

If you’re interested in learning more about weight loss drugs and whether you qualify for a prescription, a healthcare provider can help you decide whether these medicines are right for you.

Change Your Perspective on Well-Being With Everlywell

No matter what BMI category you fall into, losing weight and restoring health requires a comprehensive approach. Everlywell can help you take control of your well-being with a suite of services designed to support your weight loss journey.

From at-home tests that screen for metabolic disturbances to prescription fulfillment services for weight-loss medication, Everlywell helps you understand your health from the comfort of your home. Our online weight management program can even connect a broad network of telehealth experts in weight loss to help you cross each milestone.

Learn more about how Everlywell can help you on your well-being journey by visiting us online today.

  1. Overweight & Obesity Statistics - Niddk. National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases. URL. Accessed August 11, 2023.
  2. About adult BMI. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. June 3, 2022. URL. Accessed August 11, 2023.
  3. Defining adult overweight & obesity. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. June 3, 2022. Accessed URL. August 11, 2023.
  4. Health risks of Overweight & obesity - niddk. National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases. URL. Accessed August 11, 2023.
  5. Obesity and Metabolic Diseases. National Heart Lung and Blood Institute. URL. Accessed August 11, 2023.
  6. Yang M, Liu S, Zhang C. The related metabolic diseases and treatments of obesity. Healthcare (Basel, Switzerland). URL. August 25, 2022. Accessed August 11, 2023.
  7. Metabolic syndrome. Mayo Clinic. URL. Accessed August 11, 2023.
  8. Obesity and cancer fact sheet. National Cancer Institute. URL. Accessed August 11, 2023.
  9. Venkatesh SS;Ferreira T;Benonisdottir S;Rahmioglu N;Becker CM;Granne I;Zondervan KT;Holmes MV;Lindgren CM;Wittemans LBL; Obesity and risk of female reproductive conditions: A mendelian randomisation study. PLoS medicine. URL. Accessed August 11, 2023.
  10. Gambineri A, Laudisio D, Marocco C, et al. Female infertility: Which role for obesity? International journal of obesity supplements. April 2019. URL. Accessed August 11, 2023.
  11. Bellastella G, Menafra D, Puliani G, Colao A, Savastano S. How much does obesity affect the male reproductive function? Nature News. April 12, 2019. URL. Accessed August 11, 2023.
  12. Health effects of overweight and obesity. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. September 24, 2022. URL. Accessed August 11, 2023.
  13. Treatment for overweight & obesity - niddk. National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases. URL. Accessed August 11, 2023.
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