One often misunderstood condition pertaining to Social Security Disability is obesity.  Here’s what you should know about obesity and Social Security Disability.

What is obesity?

A person is obese if their BMI (body mass index) measured in kg/m2 is over a certain level.  You can calculate your body mass index here.  (Or you can divide your weight in kilograms by your height in meters squared if you enjoy math!)

If your BMI is over 30 you are obese in medical terms.  There are three classes of obesity.  BMI from 30 to 34.9 is class I. BMI from 35-39.9 is class II.  BMI over 40 is class III.

Another important measurement is your waist circumference.  Men with waists over 40 inches and women with waists over 35 inches have an increased risk of type 2 diabetes, hypertension and cardiovascular disease.

There is an obesity epidemic in America.

Obesity happens when a person consumes more calories than he or she burns. Other medical conditions and medications can contribute to the problem.  More than 1/3 of all adults in the United States are obese.  More than 1/6 of all children ages 6 to 19 in the United States are obese.  The good news is that the national childhood obesity rate has stopped increasing after a long trend of increasing steadily for decades.

Can someone get disability benefits just for being overweight?

No.  Obesity by itself is not a medical impairment that will meet the Social Security Administration’s criteria for a disabling impairment.

Obesity is one factor that an adjudicator will consider when evaluating how much a claimant can or cannot do in a workplace setting.  Obesity can exaggerate the functional limitations caused by other medical problems like arthritis in the weight bearing joints (hips, knees, ankles) or cardiopulmonary disease.

An adjudicator or judge must consider obesity when assessing what a claimant can or cannot do in a workplace setting and consider whether obesity is just as disabling as other medical impairments contained in the Listings of Impairments, the catalog of medical conditions compiled by the Social Security Administration for guidance to adjudicators, judges, doctors, and medical consultants.

Here is an excerpt from a favorable decision for an obese claimant:

“In evaluating the entire record, the undersigned is convinced that all the claimant’s severe impairments and other medically determinable impairments must be read in conjunction with each other, and seen as co-morbidities of her extreme obesity. To even the casual observer such as the field office employee who completed the claimant’s original application this affected all her activities and mobility. The claimant has aggressively, and continually since her original accident, sought various treatment modalities and followed-up on them with little or no effect. She has also now moved toward surgery to address her weight problem, and even her treating physician thinks that this will have an effect on her residual functional capacity. Nonetheless, the overall picture that is available here, is one that fits with the current residual functional capacity to perform sedentary work with more than three absences per month.”

What if I’ve been overweight all my life?

Many claimants have a long productive work life despite being overweight or obese, but when they develop a new medical condition their weight becomes a factor that slows them down or interferes with work altogether.

If I get disability benefits will I lose my benefits if I lose weight?

Yes, if a claimant loses weight and regains the ability to sit, stand, walk, push/pull, lift, carry, reach, maintain concentration, persistence and pace, and attend work regularly, their benefits will be terminated—and the quality and length of their life will be dramatically improved!

Most cases are reviewed every few years.

Should I stay obese just to keep my Social Security Disability benefits?

Probably not.

Social Security Disability benefits replace only a fraction of the earnings that a person can enjoy in a full time job, so almost every claimant would rather be working.

People who work and stay actively involved in the workplace and community live longer, healthier lives and have a lower incidence of dementia.

Where can I get help with obesity in Southern Illinois?

Doctors, nurses, PA’s and others at New Life Weight Loss Center help patients lose weight through diet counseling, lifestyle changes, medication, and in some cases, surgery.

You can also find more resources and information online at

Joni Beth Bailey is a Southern Illinois Social Security Disability representative.