The Six Different Types Of Obesity

Researchers from The University of Sheffield in the UK have made an important discovery.

Not all fat is the same. A study identified 6 types of obesity, paving a way for better-tailored treatments to help lose weight.


Obesity is a serious health issue, especially in the United States. According to CDC, more than one-third (37.9%) of U.S. adults are obese. With most health conditions there are various treatment plans based on the unique characteristics of one’s illness. However, when it comes to obesity, all obese people are put into one category and there is a “one-size-fits-all” approach to treatment. All obese people are advised to eat less and exercise more. Until now.

Researchers from The University of Sheffield in the United Kingdom have made an important discovery. The researchers have identified that people who are categorized as being obese actually fall into one of six distinct groups. This is a big step forward in addressing the obesity crisis as it ultimately demonstrates that one size does not fit all. Each type of obesity requires a unique treatment plan in order to accurately target its group’s common characteristics.


The study was carried out by researchers from the University of Sheffield in the UK and the Harvard School of Public Health in the US.  It was published in the peer-reviewed Journal of Public Health. This study looked at data from over 4,000 obese patients from the Yorkshire Health Study. Researchers looked at each subject’s age, sex, ethnicity and socioeconomic status, as well as their health needs and lifestyle habits. The study aimed to see whether it was possible to recognize subgroups of obesity according to common health and lifestyle characteristics.

Read Why You Should Use Shape Index Instead of BMI For Health Predictions

Based on the responses to the questionnaires, the research team theorized that the adults who had a body mass index (BMI) of 30 or over — which is the clinical definition of obesity — could be placed into one of six groups.

The 6 types of obesity:

Types of obesity

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Better Targeted Treatment

Researchers argued that each type comes with different treatments and obese people would benefit from targeted treatment programmes. Because each group is socially distinct from the others, the causes of their obesity are likely to be different. This means we should abandon the “one-fits-all” treatment and account for the important variations within individuals who are obese. Interventions should therefore not target obese individuals as a whole but tailor strategies depending on which subgroups the individuals belong to. This would make for a far more effective treatment.

Treating the “Unhappy Middle-Aged” will differ from the treatment that is suitable for the individuals in the “Poorest Health” group. For the former, it may be better to increase exercise and offer counseling to address their mental health issues. For the latter,  advising exercise may not be reasonable and more modest goals should be set.  On the other hand, those that fall into the “Heavy Drinking Males” category would benefit from an alcohol reduction program.

Developing new treatments for obesity is absolutely vital. The researchers suggest that doctors should assess what group obese patients might fall into and treat them accordingly.


The Limits

The study makes a very valid point that there are many types of obesity. This just reinforces the common-sense intuition that we cannot put all people in one basket. And so treatment should be tailored to a person’s specific obesity type. It is no surprise, however, that a study which aims to find patterns in such complex phenomena like obesity have several limits.

Lack Of Causality 

Firstly, it fails to prove that the participants become obese because of the factors that defined their group. We can’t say whether any of the lifestyle characteristics measured have contributed to causing the obesity. Neither does the study show that a certain treatment will be better or worse for the people in each category. Randomized studies are necessary to determine if one weight loss program is better than others. Essentially one cannot identify causation from this study. It is mostly speculation.  The researchers themselves described their research as being “exploratory and hypothesis-generating”.

Limited Sample

Further, one can argue this study is reductionist, reducing such complex health issue into simple six categories. It’s likely that there exist other types of obesity. There may also be additional factors leading to weight gain that have not received much attention in this particular study. The study used a small sample of individuals from Yorkshire. Therefore one cannot generalize these finding to the whole population. We do not know whether the same six obesity types would be identified if a different sample of people was examined. It is very likely that if other countries and ethnic groups were added then additional groups would be discovered.

Avenue For Future Research 

This study certainly provides an interesting avenue for further research. Also, it gets us to think more deeply about the causes of our weight problems. It demonstrates why we should abandon the “one-size-fits-all” approach which is one step forward in addressing the obesity crisis. The study suffers from multiple problems, mainly it cannot identify causation but it may be used to drive future research. Obesity is a growing problem around the world. It is therefore crucial that we better understand the problems related to obesity and the ways to fight it.

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Wiktoria Banda

Wiktoria is a content writer and illustrator at Shape.
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