Lose Weight, Gain Tons of Benefits

Taking off just 10% of your body weight can have a big impact on your health.

By Kathleen Zelman, MPH, RD/LD
WebMD Weight Loss Clinic - Feature

Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

A little goes a long way when it comes to weight loss. Research has shown that losing 10% of your body weight -- or less - can have big payoffs for your health.

Such a small loss may not seem like much if you're trying to look svelte in your jeans. But in terms of your health, it can be a big victory.

Health Benefits

With more than 60% of Americans classified as overweight or obese, most of us would benefit from trimming down.

''Being overweight or obese is associated with an increased risk for the development of a multitude of diseases, including cancer, diabetes, heart disease, and more,'' says David Katz, MD, MPH, director of Yale University's Prevention Research Center and of the Yale Preventive Medicine Center.

But lose a few pounds and you can start to turn your health around, according to several studies.

''Lifestyle changes that include healthier diets, regular physical activity, and weight loss of 7%-10% have shown phenomenal health benefits that can be more effective than medications,'' says Katz, author of the best-selling book What to Eat.

Lowering body weight can reverse or prevent diabetes; lower blood pressure, cholesterol, and triglyceride levels; and improve sleep apnea and other sleep problems -- along with helping you feel better about yourself.

According to Katz, 90% of all diabetes, 80% of heart disease, and 60% of cancers are preventable with healthier lifestyles and normal body weights.

''We have seen a consistent pattern in our weight loss studies that when patients lose 5%-10% of their body weight, they lower blood pressure, reduce LDL ["bad"] cholesterol, improve glucose tolerance, and in general, lower the risk for cardiovascular disease," says Catherine Champagne, a researcher with Louisiana State University's Pennington Biomedical Research Center.

Some doctors have reported that they have successfully taken patients off blood pressure and cholesterol-lowering medications after the patients lost small amounts of weight, Champagne says.

Are You an 'Apple?'

Losing a little weight can be especially beneficial for people who store their excess weight in their abdomens, rather than in their hips. This 'apple' pattern of weight distribution means you're at greater risk for heart disease -- but it also means you should have an easier time losing the weight, and thus reversing the risk, experts say.

''Depending on where you store the excess weight, there are some people who show dramatic health improvements with as little as a 2% weight loss,'' says Katz.

Fat stored in the waist and in the liver is more metabolically active, which makes it more of a trigger for heart disease, but also easier to lose, he says.

To find out if you're apple-shaped, Katz suggests measuring your waist. He recommends seeing your doctor if your waist circumference is above 34 inches for women, and 40 inches for men.

Start Feeling Better

Think of how much harder it would be to climb stairs or simply to walk if you were carrying around a backpack filled with 5- or 10-pound bricks. Now imagine how much lighter you would feel without the backpack. That's the feeling you get from losing as little as 5 pounds or 10 pounds.

A healthy diet and regular exercise not only improves your health but also puts the zip back into your step.

''Losing weight the healthy way means not only will you look and feel better, but you will have more energy,'' says Dawn Jackson Blatner, RD, of Northwestern Memorial Hospital Wellness Institute.

And what does it take to lose weight the healthy way? The National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute recommends increased physical activity and a healthy diet full of fruits, vegetables, low-fat dairy, whole grains, lean meats, fish, nuts, and beans.

Small Changes Add Up

So how do you go about getting there? The key, experts say, is making small changes you can sustain.

Think progress, not perfection. Forget strict diets and the old-fashioned trap of "all or nothing," says Blatner.

''The 'B' students are the success stories in our practice -- the folks who strive to make changes and lead a healthier lifestyle 80% of the time, and the other 20%, allow room for a little splurging,'' she says.

Some of the small changes she recommends include ''tracking your food intake, bringing an apple instead of going to the vending machine, trying a diet soda, going from a king-size candy bar to a small one."

"Work at your own pace," she says. "Just be consistent and keep up the changes.''

Blatner notes that losing 10% of body weight over a six-month period of time is the "gold standard" for improved health. At the end of the six months, Blatner suggests taking stock of your progress, evaluating the degree of difficulty, and setting a new six-month goal.

''If you managed the weight loss and feel confident you can continue, set your next goal for another 10%," she says. "Otherwise, strive to maintain the lost weight and reassess in six months.''

Even if you only lost 5% of your body weight, that's a step in the right direction.

''Anyone who actively makes healthy lifestyle changes will begin to see and feel the improvements in 8-12 weeks,'' she says.

Focus on Health Not Underwear Models

The most successful dieters are those who focus on health, instead of a figure on the scale, Katz says. He offers five simple tips to get you started on the journey toward improved health:

  1. Your goal should be both to eat healthier meals and get regular physical activity. Most people cannot lose weight by diet alone but need to balance calories consumed with calories burned. Regular exercise also provides a wealth of health benefits.
  2. Restrictive diets may work initially but usually fail over the long haul. Forget about "dieting" and instead, think about strategies to satisfy your hunger for fewer calories. Eating more fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and lean protein can help manage your appetite.
  3. Be a role model to teach your family about healthier eating patterns and lifestyles. There is strength in unity, and when you engage your family, you will be improving their health as well as your own.
  4. Become more aware of the nutrition environment around you. Read food labels, and stock your kitchen with nutritious foods so you'll have ingredients on hand for healthy snacks and meals. Plan ahead and take nutritious food with you when you're on the go so you'll be prepared when hunger strikes.
  5. Identify what led to your weight gain and address it. For example, if you overeat because of stress, consider a stress management course. Develop a strategy to address areas where you're vulnerable so you can set yourself up for success.

Published June 23, 2006.

SOURCES: New England Journal of Medicine, May 30, 2002. Clinical Guide to the Identification, Evaluation and Treatment of Overweight and Obesity in Adults, National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, 2000. Catherine Champagne, PhD, RD, Pennington Biomedical Research Center, Louisiana State University, Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Dawn Jackson Blatner, RD, Northwestern Memorial Hospital Wellness Institute, Chicago; and spokeswoman, American Dietetic Association. David Katz, MD, associate professor, Yale University School of Public Health; and author, The Way to Eat and The Flavor Point Diet.

©2006 WebMD Inc. All rights reserved.

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