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What is obesity?

Everyone needs a certain amount of body fat for stored energy, heat insulation, shock absorption, and other functions. As a rule, women have more fat than men. Doctors generally agree that men with more than 25 percent body fat and women with more than 30 percent body fat are obese. Precisely measuring a person's body fat, however, is not easy. The most accurate method is to weigh a person underwater -- a procedure limited to laboratories with sophisticated equipment.

There are two simpler methods for estimating body fat, but they can yield inaccurate results if done by an inexperienced person or if done on someone with severe obesity. One is to measure skin fold thickness in several parts of the body. The second involves sending a harmless amount of electric current through a person's body (bioelectric impedance analysis). Both methods are commonly used in health clubs and in commercial weight-loss programs, but results should be viewed skeptically.

Because measuring a person's body fat is tricky, doctors often rely on other means to diagnose obesity. Two widely used measurements are weight-for-height tables and body mass index. While both measurements have their limitations, they are reliable indicators that someone may have a weight problem. They are easy to calculate and require no special equipment.

Weight-for-height tables
Most people are familiar with weight-for-height tables. Doctors have used these tables for decades to determine whether a person is overweight. The tables usually have a range of acceptable weights for a person of a given height.

One problem with using weight-for-height tables is that doctors disagree over which is the best table to use. Many versions are available, all with different weight ranges. Some tables take a person's frame size, age, and sex into account; others do not. A limitation of all weight-for-height tables is that they do not distinguish excess fat from muscle. A very muscular person may appear obese, according to the tables, when he or she is not. Still, weight-for-height tables can be used as general guidelines.

Body mass index (BMI)
Body mass index, or BMI, is a new term to most people. However, it is the measurement of choice for many physicians and researchers studying obesity. BMI uses a mathematical formula that takes into account both a person's height and weight. BMI equals a person's weight in kilograms divided by height in meters squared. (Or, weight in pounds divided by height in inches squared, and multiplied by 704.5). You can figure out your BMI with our BMI calculator.

While the BMI measurement poses some of the same problems as the weight-for-height tables, it's a useful general guide.

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