We compared metabolic biomarkers in the blood and peripheral blood mononuclear cell (PBMC) gene expression profiles among normal weight (BMI, 18·5–23 kg/m2), mildly obese (BMI, 25–27·5 kg/m2) and moderately obese Korean adult men (BMI, 27·5–30 kg/m2). High leptin, lipids (except LDL- and HDL-cholesterol) and apoB levels and low adiponectin and HDL-cholesterol levels were present in the plasma of both mildly and moderately obese subjects. Circulating levels of inflammatory cytokines and markers of insulin resistance, oxidative stress and liver damage were altered in moderately obese subjects but not in mildly obese subjects. PBMC transcriptome data showed enrichment of pathways involved in energy metabolism, insulin resistance, bone metabolism, cancer, inflammation and fibrosis in both mildly and moderately obese subjects. Signalling pathways involved in oxidative phosphorylation, TAG synthesis, carbohydrate metabolism and insulin production; mammalian target of rapamycin, forkhead box O, ras-proximate-1, RAS and transforming growth factor-β signalling; as well as extracellular matrix–receptor interaction were enriched only in moderately obese subjects, indicating that changes in PBMC gene expression profiles, according to metabolic disturbances, were associated with the development and/or aggravation of obesity. In particular, fourteen and fifteen genes differentially expressed only in mildly obese subjects and in both mildly and moderately obese subjects, respectively, could be used as early or stable biomarkers for diagnosing and treating obesity-associated metabolic disturbance. We characterised BMI-associated metabolic and molecular biomarkers in the blood and provided clues about potential blood-based targets for preventing or treating obesity-related complications.