What Exactly Is Morbid Obesity?

Strike Rat

The descriptive phrase “morbid obesity” seems to have been replaced by “severe obesity,” which doesn’t sound quite as deadly. The association is useful, because when a person embarks on the journey into “morbidly obese” territory, she or he will probably have to deal with things that are potentially fatal.

Either way, those who exceed their ideal body weight by 100 pounds or more qualify as morbidly or severely obese. Also qualifying are people who have a body mass index of more than 40, or a BMI of more than 35 plus the ill effects of some condition related to the surplus weight. This academic website shows how to calculate your BMI at home and features an Ideal Body Weight Chart.

The definition also includes people who have tried and tried for a long time, under medical supervision, and still can’t achieve a healthy weight. Regarding childhood obesity, the American Heart Association published a statement that defined about 5% of America’s children and teens as severely obese:

The statement defines children over age 2 as severely obese if they either have a body mass index (BMI) that’s at least 20 percent higher than the 95th percentile for their gender and age, or a BMI score of 35 or higher.

Another definition of morbid obesity:

[T]he condition of weighing two or more times the ideal weight…. A state of excess body fat, which is regarded as a premorbid addiction disorder, defined as 20% above a person’s standard weight.

The interesting thing is the inclusion of the words “addiction disorder,” another indication of how the idea of food addiction is becoming widely accepted. From Britain, an MSN page written by Frankie Mullin acknowledges that “to some, ‘food addiction’ is a real and debilitating affliction that is, at least in part, the underlying cause of the current obesity epidemic.” Mullin also speaks of Europe’s NeuroFAST project:

The project has so far found some evidence of a connection between the opioid and dopamine systems in the brain and overeating. People who are morbidly obese show changes in their dopamine systems which are similar to the changes in a person who is addicted to drugs or alcohol.

Early prevention is essential to ending the childhood obesity epidemic. A piece from The Telegraph quotes Dr. Malcolm Low of the University of Michigan:

Scientists have discovered that being obese for some time “flips a switch” that resets normal body weight to be “irreversibly” higher…. Our model demonstrates that obesity is in part a self-perpetuating disorder and the results further emphasize the importance of early intervention in childhood to try to prevent the condition whose effects can last a lifetime.

This was based on a study of overfed mice who became obese as infants and never were able to return to the normal weight range, regardless of exercise or diet. Dr. Pretlow and many other health care providers are alarmed at the “skyrocketing” rate of morbid obesity and are anxious to discover the responsible factors.

Your responses and feedback are welcome!

Source: “Am I Morbidly Obese?,” Upstate.edu, 07/05/13
Source: “5 percent of U.S. children, teens classified as ‘severely obese’ ,” Heart.org, 09/09/13
Source: “Obesity,” TheFreeDictionary.com
Source: “Food addiction: know the facts,” Food.UK.MSN.com, 01/05/2013
Source: “ Obesity may be irreversible ,” Telegraph.co.uk, 1//26/12
Image by RatRanch


2 Responses

  1. “This was based on a study of overfed mice who became obese as infants and never were able to return to the normal weight range, regardless of exercise or diet.”

    Do you have any links to this study? It sounds facinating. And certainly the conclusion can’t be as simple as what’s stated – thermodynamics doesn’t just go away because of the unfortunate circumstance of being fat as a baby rat… so I really want to read the study and see what the more nuanced conclusion is.

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About Dr. Robert A. Pretlow

Dr. Robert A. Pretlow is a pediatrician and childhood obesity specialist. He has been researching and spreading awareness on the childhood obesity epidemic in the US for more than a decade.
You can contact Dr. Pretlow at:


Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the American Society of Animal Science 2020 Conference
What’s Causing Obesity in Companion Animals and What Can We Do About It

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the World Obesity Federation 2019 Conference:
Food/Eating Addiction and the Displacement Mechanism

Dr. Pretlow’s Multi-Center Clinical Trial Kick-off Speech 2018:
Obesity: Tackling the Root Cause

Dr. Pretlow’s 2017 Workshop on
Treatment of Obesity Using the Addiction Model

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation for
TEC and UNC 2016

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the 2015 Obesity Summit in London, UK.

Dr. Pretlow’s invited keynote at the 2014 European Childhood Obesity Group Congress in Salzburg, Austria.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2013 European Congress on Obesity in Liverpool, UK.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2011 International Conference on Childhood Obesity in Lisbon, Portugal.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2010 Uniting Against Childhood Obesity Conference in Houston, TX.

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