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Am I Overweight or Obese?

Doctors usually define "overweight" as a condition in which a person's weight is 10%-20% higher than "normal," as defined by a standard height/weight chart, or as a body mass index (BMI) of 25 to 30.

Obesity is usually defined as a condition in which a person's weight is 20% or more above normal weight or as a BMI of 30 or more. "Morbid obesity" means a person is either 50%-100% over normal weight, more than 100 pounds over normal weight, or sufficiently overweight to severely interfere with health or normal functioning.

Approximately 60 million Americans, nearly one-third of all adults and about one in five children, are obese. In 2008, only one state -- Colorado -- had an obesity rate less than 20%.

There are several tests that can be performed to determine if you are overweight or obese. But measuring the exact amount of a person's body fat is not an easy task. Some tests are more accurate than others.

What Tests Are Available to Diagnose Obesity?

  • Hydrostatic body fat test. This is the most accurate test given to assess body fat. During the test, you are submerged in water while your underwater weight is recorded. This test is usually done at research and academic centers, but the test is also now done with mobile units.
  • Dual energy X-ray absorptiometry (DEXA). This is another very accurate way to assess body fat. During this test, the person must lay flat for approximately 20 to 30 minutes while every section of his or her body is systematically X-rayed in a CT scanner.

Unfortunately, these methods, however accurate, are not practical for the average person, and are generally done only in research centers with special equipment. As a result, doctors have developed easier methods to determine if a person is overweight or obese. These include:

  • Calipers. A caliper is a device that is used to measure the amount of body fat on different parts of the body. Special computations provide your percentage of body fat based on the various measurements of skinfold thickness. These devices are commonly used in health clubs and commercial weight loss centers, but the results are only accurate if performed correctly.
  • Bioelectrical Impedance, or BIA. This technique uses a machine that sends harmless and painless electricity through a person's body to measure each of the different kinds of tissue in the body. These include the amount of muscle and other lean tissue as well as the amount of fat and water in their body. The greater amount of fat a person has, the greater the resistance the electrical signal encounters. BIA is very accurate and is often available to the public for purchase or can be found at gyms and rehabilitation centers, as well as doctors' offices.
  • Height/weight charts. Special tables can be used to determine if a person is overweight or obese. To get your ideal weight, you find your height on the chart, decide if you are thick, medium, or thin framed and then you can find the range of your ideal weights separate for males and females. However, this technique is not always accurate. For example, the height/weight tables could indicate that a lean, muscular person is "overweight" (muscle weighs more than fat) while a person whose weight is within the "normal" range might actually be carrying around more fatty tissue than is healthy.
  • Body mass index. The BMI is now the most common tool used to measure obesity. It measures your weight relative to your height. The ideal range is 18.5-24.9. A person with a BMI between 25 and 29.9 is considered to be overweight and a BMI 30 to 39.9 indicates obesity and a BMI 40 and above indicates morbid obesity. This technique has the same drawback as the height/weight charts -- it does not take into account if a person is very muscular.
  • Waist-to-hip ratio. This measures the risk of heart disease from belly fat. To get this ratio, measure your weight circumference in inches and divide it by your hip circumference. An abnormal ratio for women is 0.85 and higher; for men, it's 1.0 or higher.

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