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Small weight loss leads to big health gains

Published by Cheryl Mussatto, MS, RD, LD on Mar 2, 2020

Rates of obesity in the U.S. show little sign of slowing down.  In 2017 and 2018, more than four in 10 American adults, or 42.4% had obesity and over 9% had severe obesity according to a report from the CDC’s National Center for Health Statistics. In 10 years, a 2019 study in the New England Journal of Medicine projects that nearly one of every two adults or roughly half of the U.S. will be obese. This continued increase of obesity rates is concerning as excess weight gain is associated with increasing many chronic conditions such as type 2 diabetes, heart disease, certain forms of cancer, osteoarthritis, lower back pain, gout, sleep apnea, and complications in pregnancy and surgery, to name a few. At some point, change needs to happen if we are ever to reverse the current direction we continue to follow.

Meaningful changes take time.  This statement is especially true when it comes to reaching a healthy body weight. It doesn’t happen overnight.  But here is a bit of good news for those seeking weight loss – shedding just five percent of your body weight does a lot of good.  That small tip of the scale can result in significant improvement in many health parameters. According to a small 2016 study in the journal Cell Metabolism, findings showed that a five percent weight loss can give you a large “bang for your buck” and an additional 10 to 15 percent weight loss continues to cause even more improvements in measures like blood pressure and blood lipids.

Whether obese or overweight, the thought of having to radically transform your body by losing lots of pounds can be extremely formidable.  For many, knowing that they are expected to lose all of their excess weight to get healthier can lead to feelings of hopelessness that they will never be able to see major improvements in their health.

This thinking is actually wrong and for good reason.  Research has shown that even if a person does not reach a weight or body mass index (BMI) that the charts consider to be optimal, one can still be successful at improving their health, reducing their risk of chronic diseases and their overall quality of life with a weight loss of just 5 percent.

This means for someone, for example, who weighs 250 pounds, a 5 percent body weight loss is around 12 pounds.  This sounds like a much more doable, manageable, and achievable weight loss goal than to expect one to lose fifty pounds or more.  By aiming for and achieving smaller target weight loss goals, this results in significant improvements to metabolic health and more importantly, opens up the door to continued weight loss.

For anyone needing to shed a few pounds, here are five reasons why you gain in health improvements:

1. Improvements in heart health

Our heart loves us best when we can reach and maintain a healthier body weight.  A 2011 study published in Diabetes Care found that people who lose between 5 and 10 percent of their body weight had a boost in healthy HDL cholesterol and a reduction in triglycerides.  When these numbers indicative of heart health improve, this means a person’s risk of heart disease, high blood pressure and risk of stroke have plummeted.

2. Cuts cancer risk

A factor in the development of cancer is inflammation.  Carrying excess weight is an inflammatory condition so losing some weight can reduce inflammation levels in the body.  Researchers at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle found postmenopausal women who lost 5 to 10 percent of their body weight and took 2,000 IU of vitamin D each day had a significant reduction in levels of pro-inflammatory cytokine called interleukin-6, a marker linked to a higher risk of endometrial cancer, ovarian cancer, and mortality in people with heart disease.

3. Fewer symptoms of sleep apnea

People who are overweight to obese have a four times greater risk of obstructive sleep apnea.  This serious condition involves pauses in breathing while sleeping. A 5 percent drop in weight can improve sleep apnea and for some people who have achieved this, they may be able to wean themselves from a CPAP machine, a device used to help keep the airways open during sleep.

Even for those without sleep apnea, losing some weight can lead to longer, more restful sleep according to a 2014 study conducted by researchers at the University of Pennsylvania.  If a person had lost 5 percent or more of their body weight, they were able to catch an additional 22 minutes of sleep per night along with better quality sleep.  This means more energy for the next day.

4. Reduces diabetes risk

One of the main risk factors in developing diabetes is gaining too much weight.  Losing just 5 percent can go a long way in preventing individuals from having to deal with this chronic condition.  The hemoglobin A1C, which is an estimate of blood sugar levels over a 3-month period, is more likely to respond by decreasing when someone with diabetes can achieve at least a 5 percent weight reduction.  This drop can be enough to move a person from diabetes (defined as an A1C of 6.5 or higher) to prediabetes or out of a prediabetes zone (defined as an A1C between 5.7 to 6.4 percent).  In fact, someone with prediabetes who loses 5 percent body weight can lower their risk of diabetes by an impressive 58 percent.

5. Increases sex drive

One of the best perks of losing at least 5 percent body weight is an increase in energy, enhancement in mood, a boost in self-confidence, increased participation in exercise and having more sex.  In addition, couples who are having trouble conceiving, losing weight can increase fertility markers improving rates of conception which was found in a 2012 study published in Obesity Surgery.

You can successfully lose weight

Reaching and maintaining a healthier body weight takes some effort but with time and practice, it becomes easier. Start by setting mini goals which might include the following:

  • Have a fruit and or vegetable at each meal
  • Always pair a protein source with a healthy carbohydrate when you have a snack; e.g., apple slices with almonds, peanut butter with half a banana, or Greek yogurt with frozen blueberries.
  • Take a walk after eating dinner at least 3 nights a week

Successful weight loss means making sustainable changes you can live with. Choose a way of eating that works best for you and your lifestyle long-term. And always remember to be kind to yourself.  You may not always be able to give 100% of your efforts 100% of the time, but as long as you are being consistent moving forward toward your goals, you are already a success.


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Cheryl Mussatto, MS, RD, LD

Cheryl Mussatto MS, RD, LD is a registered dietitian with a master’s degree in Dietetics and Nutrition from the University of Kansas and a bachelor’s degree in Dietetics and Institutional Management from Kansas State University. She is a clinical dietitian for Cotton O’Neil Clinics in Topeka and Osage City; an adjunct professor for Allen Community College, Burlingame, KS where she teaches Basic Nutrition; and is a freelance writer and blog contributor for Dr. David Samadi, Urologic Oncologist Expert and World Renowned Robotic Surgeon in New York City. Cheryl is also the author of The Nourished Brain, The Latest Science on Food’s Power for Protecting the Brain from Alzheimers and Dementia and The Prediabetes Action Plan and Cookbook, both available on Amazon in Kindle and paperback editions.

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