Skip to main content

What Are the Primary Risk Factors for Morbid Obesity?

Written by Andrew Le, MD

UpdatedMarch 4, 2024

Morbid obesity is a complex chronic condition characterized by a body mass index (BMI) of 40 or higher or a BMI of 35 or higher coupled with obesity-related health conditions.

The issue of morbid obesity has shown a significant increase over the years. The rates of obesity have surged, approximately 13% for adults, affecting 1 in 5 children worldwide.

This rapid increase makes us want to understand the main reasons for this problem.

In this article, you will learn the different risk factors that cause morbid obesity, including the interventions implemented to fight against it.

🔑 Key Takeaways

  • Lifestyle changes, such as regular physical activity, mindful eating, and portion control, are vital in sustainable weight management.
  • Social support, a positive mindset, and celebrating progress are essential for weight management.
  • Childhood obesity increases the risk of adult morbid obesity, highlighting the importance of early interventions.
  • Medical advancements explore treatments targeting physiological mechanisms underlying obesity, including medications and medical devices.
Illustration of a healthcare provider asking questions on a smart phone.
Virtual weight loss solution
A personalized GLP-1 medication program delivered to you via our partner Korb Health
Illustration of a healthcare provider asking questions on a smart phone.
  • Free consultation; program starts at $269/mo
  • Checkmark Inside Circle.Customized online program and wellness coaching
  • Prescription medications and supplies shipped to your door
Learn more

Understanding Morbid Obesity

The term “morbid obesity” was coined by two healthcare providers in 1963 to justify insurance reimbursement for the cost of intestinal bypass surgery for weight loss in people with a BMI over 40.

Using “morbid” in describing obesity is discouraged as it can be offensive. Instead, "class III obesity" or "severe obesity" is preferred.

🗒️ Related Articles:

To learn more about weight management, check out some of our articles:

Risk Factors for Morbid Obesity

Some factors contribute to the higher potential for significant health complications and adverse outcomes associated with morbid obesity. Morbid obesity often results from a combination of causes and contributing factors:

Genetic and Familial Influences

Inherited genes from your parents can impact how your body stores fat and its distribution. Genetics also affect:

  • Metabolism efficiency
  • Appetite regulation
  • Calorie burning during physical activity

Familial patterns of obesity often extend beyond genetics to shared eating and activity habits.

Lifestyle Decisions

Our lifestyle choices can significantly impact the development of morbid obesity. Here are some examples:

  • Unhealthy Eating: Consuming a calorie-rich diet lacking in fruits and vegetables, and loaded with fast food, along with oversized portions and high-calorie beverages, contributes to weight gain.
  • Caloric Beverages: High-calorie liquids, including alcohol and sugary soft drinks, can lead to weight gain without satiety.
  • Sedentary Behavior: An inactive lifestyle can lead to a calorie surplus compared to daily energy expenditure associated with weight gain, particularly with extended screen time.

Medical Conditions and Medications

Medical Conditions and Medications can make you gain weight and make it hard to manage. Here are the factors that can make it challenging to maintain a healthy body weight:

  • Underlying Medical Causes: Certain conditions like hypothyroidism, Cushing syndrome, and Prader-Willi syndrome can contribute to morbid obesity. Health issues like arthritis can reduce physical activity and lead to weight gain.
  • Medications: Some medications, such as steroids, specific antidepressants, diabetes drugs, and beta blockers, may induce weight gain if not balanced with diet or activity.

Socioeconomic and Social Factors

Socioeconomic and social factors encompass the influence of your living environment and social connections on morbid obesity. Here are some important points to consider:

  • Economic and Social Dynamics: Limited access to safe exercise spaces, unhealthy cooking practices, and insufficient availability of nutritious foods can contribute to obesity. Social connections, such as friends or family members with obesity, may influence weight gain.
  • Age-Related Changes: Morbid obesity can manifest at any age, with hormonal shifts and decreased physical activity as you grow older amplifying the risk. Muscle mass decline and reduced metabolism with age can lead to weight gain.

Additional Influences

Several other influences can contribute to morbid obesity, shaping its development and impact, and this includes:

  • Pregnancy: Weight gain during pregnancy, often challenging to shed postpartum, can contribute to obesity development in women.
  • Smoking Cessation: Quitting smoking may lead to weight gain, possibly reaching morbid obesity levels, as some use food to cope with smoking withdrawal. Despite this, the health benefits of quitting smoking outweigh the risk of weight gain.
  • Sleep Patterns: Sleep inadequacy or excessive sleep can alter hormone levels that control appetite and cravings, potentially leading to weight gain.
  • Stress: Emotional factors can trigger high-calorie food consumption during stressful moments.
  • Microbiome: Gut bacteria composition, influenced by dietary choices, can play a role in weight gain or loss.

❗ Remember:

Understanding that risk factors don't inevitably lead to its development is important. Instead, they offer insight into potential vulnerabilities that can be managed proactively.

What are the health risks associated with morbid obesity?

The risks associated with morbid obesity stem from the excessive accumulation of body fat and the strain it places on the body's systems. Health risks can include but are not limited to:

Type 2 diabetes

Type 2 diabetes arises from elevated blood glucose levels. About 9 in 10 individuals with type 2 diabetes are overweight or obese. Over time, this condition can result in vision issues, nerve damage, and more.

Reducing your starting weight by5% to 7%can prevent or delay type 2 diabetes. For example, if you weigh 200 pounds, shedding around 10 to 14 pounds could be your target.

High blood pressure

High blood pressure, or hypertension, occurs when blood flows excessively through your blood vessels. Larger body size can contribute to high blood pressure because the heart has to work harder to circulate blood to all cells. Additionally, excess fat can harm the kidneys, which play a role in regulating blood pressure.

High blood pressure can strain the heart, harm blood vessels, and heighten the chances of kidney issues and even death. Lowering high blood pressure by achieving a healthy body mass index through weight loss can help prevent or manage these health problems.

✅ Pro Tip:

Buoy's medical experts have identified the optimal treatments for your high blood pressure, tailored to your specific condition and symptoms.

Heart disease

Heart disease encompasses a range of conditions that impact the structure and functionality of the heart. One particular type is coronary heart disease, which occurs when the heart's arteries fail to provide adequate amounts of oxygenated blood. Heart disease refers to various issues that impact the heart, like:

Being overweight or obese raises the chances of developing problems linked to heart disease. The excess weight increases the heart's workload, requiring it to pump blood more forcefully to supply oxygen and nutrients to the body's tissues.

Excess body fat can contribute to inflammation and oxidative stress, both of which are factors that can damage blood vessels and promote the development of heart diseases such as:

  • High blood pressure
  • High blood cholesterol
  • High blood sugar


A stroke occurs when a blood vessel in your brain or neck is blocked or bursts, stopping blood flow to a part of your brain. This can harm brain tissue and affect speech or movement.

Being overweight or obese can raise blood pressure, a major cause of strokes. Losing weight might help lower your blood pressure and reduce stroke risks, like high blood sugar and cholesterol.

💡 Did You Know?

Many strokes can be prevented through the reduction of risk factors such as high blood pressure, high cholesterol, obesity, smoking, and diabetes.

Metabolic syndrome

Metabolic syndrome is a collection of conditions that raise your chances of heart disease, diabetes, and stroke. To have metabolic syndrome, you need at least three of these issues:

  • A big waist size
  • High triglycerides (a type of fat) in your blood
  • High blood pressure
  • High fasting blood sugar
  • Low levels of HDL cholesterol (the "good" kind) in your blood

Metabolic syndrome is closely linked to being overweight, obese, and not being active. Making healthy lifestyle changes to manage your weight can help prevent and lessen the impact of metabolic syndrome.

Fatty liver diseases

Fatty liver diseases happen when fat accumulates in your liver, potentially causing severe liver damage, cirrhosis, or liver failure. These diseases include nonalcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD) and steatohepatitis (NASH).

NAFLD and NASH are more common in people with overweight or morbid obesity.

Losing around 3% to 5% of your body weight, especially if you're overweight or obese, can help reduce fat in the liver.

Some cancers

Cancer is a group of related diseases where some cells in the body start growing abnormally and can spread to other parts.

Being overweight or obese might increase your chances of getting specific types of cancer. Men with excess weight have a higher risk of rectal, and prostate, and colon cancers.

For women with overweight or morbid obesity, breast, uterine lining, and gallbladder cancers are more prevalent. As they age, people who gain less weight have lower risks of various cancers, including colon, kidney, breast, and ovarian cancers.

✅ Pro Tip:

For effective diagnosis and treatment of ovarian cancer, a collaborative team consisting of gynecologists, oncologists (specialists in cancer), and surgeons is essential. Explore our ovarian cancer treatment options to discover appropriate care and gain insights into various therapies available.

Breathing problems

Excess weight, particularly overweight and morbid obesity, can impact lung function and elevate the likelihood of experiencing respiratory issues.


Osteoarthritis is a common and persistent health issue causing joint pain, swelling, stiffness, and limited movement. Morbid obesity is a key risk factor for osteoarthritis in the knees, hips, and ankles.

Excess weight increases the risk of osteoarthritis by straining joints and cartilage. Morbid obesity can also raise inflammation-causing substances in the blood, further affecting joint health. Inflamed joints increase osteoarthritis risk.

For overweight or obese individuals, weight loss can reduce stress on knees, hips, and lower back, easing inflammation.


Gout is a type of arthritis causing joint pain and swelling. It happens when uric acid crystals accumulate in joints. Risk factors include morbid obesity, being male, high blood pressure, and eating purine-rich foods like red meat and liver.

Diseases of the gallbladder and pancreas

Morbid obesity can increase the likelihood of gallbladder diseases like gallstones and cholecystitis. Obesity might lead to higher cholesterol levels in bile, resulting in gallstones and a poorly functioning gallbladder.

Having excess fat around your waist raises gallstone risk. Rapid weight loss can also increase this risk. If you're obese, consult a healthcare professional for safe weight loss methods.

Obesity can impact your pancreas, a gland aiding digestion and producing insulin. Obesity raises the risk of pancreatitis and pancreas inflammation. High blood fat levels also heighten this risk. Adopting a low-fat, healthy eating plan can reduce the chance of pancreatitis.

Kidney disease

Kidney disease occurs when your kidneys are damaged and can't effectively filter your blood. Morbid obesity raises the risk of developing the leading causes of chronic kidney disease (CKD): diabetes and high blood pressure. Even without diabetes or high blood pressure, obesity can increase CKD risk and accelerate its progression.

Pregnancy problems

Being overweight or obese increases the chances of pregnancy-related health issues that affect both the pregnancy and the baby's well-being. Pregnant individuals with morbid obesity are more likely to:

Develop gestational diabetes

Gestational diabetes is a type of diabetes that occurs during pregnancy and is a significant concern for individuals facing morbid obesity. This condition can harm both the pregnant person and the baby's health.

Pregnant individuals with morbid obesity are more susceptible to gestational diabetes due to the hormonal changes and insulin resistance that often accompany obesity

Experience preeclampsia

Preeclampsia is a condition characterized by high blood pressure during pregnancy and can lead to serious health problems for both the pregnant person and the baby if not treated, is a critical concern for individuals facing morbid obesity during pregnancy.

The excess fat tissue in the body of an obese pregnant person can release substances that promote inflammation and contribute to high blood pressure.

Preeclampsia typically occurs after the 20th week of pregnancy and is often characterized by elevated blood pressure and signs of damage to organs, most commonly the liver and kidneys.

Needing a cesarean delivery (c-section)

Cesarean delivery and longer recovery after childbirth are potential challenges associated with morbid obesity during pregnancy. Morbidly obese pregnant individuals are at an increased risk of experiencing complications during pregnancy and childbirth, including those related to the mode of delivery and postpartum recovery.

Facing potential complications from surgery and anesthesia

When undergoing surgical procedures, particularly those related to weight loss or other health conditions, individuals with severe obesity may face unique challenges and increased risks due to their higher BMI and obesity-related health issues.

Gaining excess weight

Gaining weight during or after pregnancy can have significant implications for both the mother's health and the baby's development. This phenomenon is particularly relevant for individuals with morbid obesity, as they are at a higher risk of facing challenges related to weight gain during pregnancy.

Morbid obesity during pregnancy can pose health risks for the baby, including being born larger than expected based on gender or pregnancy duration is a condition known as macrosomia. Macrosomia is a significant concern, especially in babies born to mothers with morbid obesity.

Fertility problems

Morbid obesity raises the risk of fertility issues. In women, infertility means not conceiving after a year of trying or having difficulty carrying a pregnancy to term. For men, it involves difficulty in impregnating a woman.

In men, morbid obesity is linked to lower sperm count and quality. In women, it's associated with menstrual cycle and ovulation problems. Obesity can also hinder success with certain infertility treatments.

Losing 5% of body weight may enhance fertility for women with morbid obesity by promoting regular menstrual cycles, ovulation, and higher chances of becoming pregnant.

👍 Recommendation:

To learn about at-home sperm tests, their advantages, and reliability for fertility assessment, refer to our article about the best at-home sperm tests for male fertility.

Sexual function problems

Morbid obesity might lead to sexual function problems. In men, it can increase the risk of erectile dysfunction (ED), making it difficult to achieve or maintain an erection for satisfying sexual activity.

While there's less research on how obesity affects female sexual function, it could contribute to issues like:

  • Reduced sexual desire
  • Arousal difficulties
  • Inability to orgasm
  • Pain during sex

Mental health problems

Apart from raising the risk of physical health issues, morbid obesity can also impact mental health, leading to an increased likelihood of:

  • Long-term stress
  • Body image concerns
  • Low self-esteem
  • Depression
  • Eating disorders

🩺 A Doctor’s Note:

People with morbid obesity are more likely to develop potentially serious health problems. Managing weight and seeking medical advice and support are crucial to prevent or manage these health risks.

What are some effective strategies for achieving sustainable long-term weight loss?

Effective strategies for achieving sustainable, long-term weight loss involve adopting a holistic approach encompassing lifestyle changes, dietary modifications, physical activity, and behavioral adjustments. These strategies promote gradual and lasting weight loss while prioritizing overall health and well-being.

Here are some key approaches to include:

Eat Varied, Colorful, Nutritionally Dense Foods

The foundation of successful weight management begins with a balanced and nutritious diet. Aim to include a variety of colorful fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean proteins, legumes, nuts, and seeds in your meals. Following a balanced meal plan ensures you provide your body with the essential nutrients it needs for optimal function.

Keep a Food and Weight Diary

Self-monitoring is important in weight management. Consider keeping a food and weight diary to track your daily food intake and measure your progress. This practice helps you stay accountable and make mindful choices.

Keeping a food and weight diary creates a tangible record of your efforts and progress. This practice fosters self-awareness, mindfulness, and accountability, vital for successful and sustainable weight management.

You can use a traditional paper diary, a mobile app, or a dedicated website to record your meals and weight.

Engage in Regular Physical Activity and Exercise

Physical activity is key to both weight loss and overall health. While some injuries might limit your ability to engage in traditional exercise, you can still stay active. Explore seated exercises, use resistance bands, or engage in chair yoga to keep moving.

Eliminate Liquid Calories

Liquid calories, such as sugary sodas and juices, can add up quickly and hinder weight management efforts. Opt for water, unsweetened tea, or coffee instead. Staying hydrated can also help control feelings of hunger and prevent overeating.

Measure Servings and Control Portions

Portion control is vital for managing calorie intake. Use measuring cups and size comparisons to ensure you're eating appropriate portions. Avoid eating directly from packages, which can lead to overestimating serving sizes.

Eat Mindfully

Mindful eating involves being fully present while consuming your meals. Slow down, savor the flavors, and recognize hunger and fullness cues. Avoid distractions while eating, such as watching TV or using electronic devices.

Stimulus and Cue Control

Identify triggers that may lead to overeating and find strategies to manage them. Create an environment that supports your weight management goals by removing temptations and replacing them with healthier options.

Plan Ahead

Planning your meals and stocking your kitchen with wholesome ingredients can help you make healthier choices. Prepare meals beforehand and have nutritious snacks to avoid impulsive and unhealthy eating.

Seek Social Support

Enlist the support of friends, family, or online communities to stay motivated on your weight management journey. Sharing your progress, challenges, and successes can help you stay accountable and encouraged.

Stay Positive

Weight management is a gradual process, and setbacks are normal. Maintain a positive mindset and focus on your overall progress rather than fixating on short-term fluctuations. Celebrate your achievements, no matter how small they may seem.

🗒️ Related Articles:

To learn more about weight management, check out some of our articles:


Morbid obesity, marked by a BMI of 40 or higher, poses significant health risks, including heart disease, high blood pressure, metabolic syndrome, fatty liver diseases, various cancers, respiratory issues, joint problems, and mental health challenges.

To address these risks, sustainable weight management strategies involve lifestyle changes such as adopting regular physical activity, mindful eating, and cultivating social support. Early interventions in childhood are crucial, while medical advancements, including treatments targeting obesity's underlying mechanisms, offer hope for effective solutions.

FAQs on Morbid Obesity

How do sleep quality and duration impact the risk of developing morbid obesity?

Poor sleep patterns, such as insufficient sleep duration or sleep disorders, have been linked to disruptions in appetite-regulating hormones and increased food cravings, contributing to weight gain and obesity, including morbid obesity.

Are there specific psychological factors that play a role in the development of morbid obesity?

Psychological factors like stress, emotional eating, and trauma can contribute to overeating and weight gain. Individuals facing morbid obesity may benefit from addressing these factors through therapy and support.

How does childhood obesity impact the risk of developing morbid obesity in adulthood?

Childhood obesity is a significant predictor of morbid obesity in adulthood. Early interventions and promoting healthy habits during childhood can help reduce the risk of severe obesity later in life.

What role does gut microbiota play in morbid obesity?

Emerging research suggests a link between gut microbiota composition and obesity. Imbalances in gut bacteria may influence metabolism and weight regulation, potentially contributing to morbid obesity.

Are there specific cultural or societal factors that contribute to morbid obesity?

Cultural norms, including traditional dietary practices and sedentary lifestyles, can impact obesity rates. Understanding and addressing cultural influences are important for designing effective interventions.

How does bariatric surgery compare to other treatments for morbid obesity in terms of long-term outcomes and risks?

Bariatric surgery, like gastric bypass or sleeve gastrectomy, can lead to significant weight loss and health improvements in morbidly obese individuals. However, it also carries risks and requires careful consideration.

Can hormonal changes, such as those during menopause, influence the development of morbid obesity in women?

Hormonal shifts, like those during menopause, can contribute to weight gain and redistribution of fat. Managing these changes through lifestyle adjustments and medical guidance is essential.

How does childhood obesity impact the risk of developing morbid obesity in adulthood?

Childhood obesity is a significant predictor of morbid obesity in adulthood. Early interventions and promoting healthy habits during childhood can help reduce the risk of severe obesity later in life.

What advancements are being made in medical and technological interventions for morbid obesity?

Ongoing research explores novel treatments, such as medical devices and medications, that target the physiological mechanisms underlying obesity. Stay updated on medical advancements and consult healthcare professionals for the latest options.

Illustration of a healthcare provider asking questions on a smart phone.
Virtual weight loss solution
A personalized GLP-1 medication program delivered to you via our partner Korb Health
Illustration of a healthcare provider asking questions on a smart phone.
  • Free consultation; program starts at $269/mo
  • Checkmark Inside Circle.Customized online program and wellness coaching
  • Prescription medications and supplies shipped to your door
Learn more