The epidemiology of obesity

Metabolism. 2019 Mar;92:6-10. doi: 10.1016/j.metabol.2018.09.005. Epub 2018 Sep 22.


Obesity is a complex multifactorial disease. The worldwide prevalence of overweight and obesity has doubled since 1980 to an extent that nearly a third of the world's population is now classified as overweight or obese. Obesity rates have increased in all ages and both sexes irrespective of geographical locality, ethnicity or socioeconomic status, although the prevalence of obesity is generally greater in older persons and women. This trend was similar across regions and countries, although absolute prevalence rates of overweight and obesity varied widely. For some developed countries, the prevalence rates of obesity seem to have levelled off during the past few years. Body mass index (BMI) is typically used to define overweight and obesity in epidemiological studies. However, BMI has low sensitivity and there is a large inter-individual variability in the percent body fat for any given BMI value, partly attributed to age, sex, and ethnicity. For instance, Asians have greater percent body fat than Caucasians for the same BMI. Greater cardiometabolic risk has also been associated with the localization of excess fat in the visceral adipose tissue and ectopic depots (such as muscle and liver), as well as in cases of increased fat to lean mass ratio (e.g. metabolically-obese normal-weight). These data suggest that obesity may be far more common and requires more urgent attention than what large epidemiological studies suggest. Simply relying on BMI to assess its prevalence could hinder future interventions aimed at obesity prevention and control.

Keywords: Adiposity; BMI; Health risk; Prevalence.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Aged
  • Aged, 80 and over
  • Body Mass Index
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Obesity / epidemiology*
  • Overweight / epidemiology
  • Prevalence