Note: The following article is an excerpt from the National Institutes of Health’s “Do You Know the Health Risks of Being Overweight?” publication # 98-4098 May 1998, Revised 2001
Heart Disease and Stroke
Heart disease and stroke are the leading causes of death and disability for both men and women in the United States. Overweight people are more likely to have high blood pressure, a major risk factor for heart disease and stroke, than people who are not overweight. Very high blood levels of cholesterol and triglycerides (blood fats) can also lead to heart disease and often are linked to being overweight. Being overweight also contributes to angina (chest pain caused by decreased oxygen to the heart) and sudden death from heart disease or stroke without any signs or symptoms.
The good news is that losing a small amount of weight can reduce your chances of developing heart disease or a stroke. Reducing your weight by 10 percent can decrease your chance of developing heart disease by improving how your heart works, blood pressure, and levels of blood cholesterol and triglycerides.
Noninsulin-dependent diabetes mellitus (type 2 diabetes) is the most common type of diabetes in the United States. Type 2 diabetes reduces your body’s ability to control your blood sugar. It is a major cause of early death, heart disease, kidney disease, stroke, and blindness. Overweight people are twice as likely to develop type 2 diabetes as people who are not overweight. You can reduce your risk of developing this type of diabetes by losing weight and by increasing your physical activity.
If you have type 2 diabetes, losing weight and becoming more physically active can help control your blood sugar levels. If you use medicine to control your blood sugar, weight loss and physical activity may make it possible for your doctor to decrease the amount of medication you need.
Several types of cancer are associated with being overweight. In women, these include cancer of the uterus, gallbladder, cervix, ovary, breast, and colon. Overweight men are at greater risk for developing cancer of the colon, rectum, and prostate. For some types of cancer, such as colon or breast, it is not clear whether the increased risk is due to the extra weight or to a high-fat and high-calorie diet.
Sleep apnea is a serious condition that is closely associated with being overweight. Sleep apnea can cause a person to stop breathing for short periods during sleep and to snore heavily. Sleep apnea may cause daytime sleepiness and even heart failure. The risk for sleep apnea increases with higher body weights. Weight loss usually improves sleep apnea.
Osteoarthritis is a common joint disorder that most often affects the joints in your knees, hips, and lower back. Extra weight appears to increase the risk of osteoarthritis by placing extra pressure on these joints and wearing away the cartilage (tissue that cushions the joints) that normally protects them. Weight loss can decrease stress on the knees, hips, and lower back and may improve the symptoms of osteoarthritis.
Gout is a joint disease caused by high levels of uric acid in the blood. Uric acid sometimes forms into solid stone or crystal masses that become deposited in the joints. Gout is more common in overweight people and the risk of developing the disorder increases with higher body weights.
Note: Over the short term, some diets may lead to an attack of gout in people who have high levels of uric acid or who have had gout before. If you have a history of gout, check with your doctor or other health professional before trying to lose weight.
Gallbladder disease and gallstones are more common if you are overweight. Your risk of disease increases as your weight increases. It is not clear how being overweight may cause gallbladder disease.
Weight loss itself, particularly rapid weight loss or loss of a large amount of weight, can actually increase your chances of developing gallstones. Modest, slow weight loss of about 1 pound a week is less likely to cause gallstones.
How You Can Lower Your Health Risks?
If you are overweight, losing as little as 5 to 10 percent of your body weight may improve many of the problems linked to being overweight, such as high blood pressure and diabetes. For example, if you weigh 200 pounds and are considered overweight on the weight-for-height chart, you would need to lose 10 to 20 pounds. Even a small weight loss can improve your health.
Slow and steady weight loss of no more than 1 pound per week is the safest way to lose weight. Very rapid weight loss can cause you to lose muscle rather than fat. It also increases your chances of developing other problems, such as gallstones, gout, and nutrient deficiencies. Making long-term changes in your eating and physical activity habits is the best way to lose weight and keep it off over time.
Eat Better: Whether you are trying to lose weight or maintain your weight, you should take a look at your eating habits and try to improve them. Try to eat a variety of foods, especially pasta, rice, bread, and other whole-grain foods. You should also eat plenty of fruits and vegetables. These foods will fill you up and are lower in calories than foods full of oils or fats. For more information on healthy eating, see the Nutrition and Your Health: Dietary Guidelines for Americans booklet that is available from the Weight-control Information Network (WIN).
Increase Physical Activity: Making physical activity a part of your daily life is an important way to help control your weight and lower your risk for health problems. Spend less time in activities that use little energy like watching television and playing video games and more time in physical activities. Try to do at least 30 minutes of physical activity a day on most days of the week. The activity does not have to be done all at once. It can be done in short spurts–10 minutes here, 20 minutes there–as long as it adds up to 30 minutes a day. Simple ways to become more physically active include walking to the store or taking the stairs instead of the elevator. See WIN’s fact sheet Physical Activity and Weight Control for more information.
If you are not overweight but health problems related to being overweight run in your family, it is important that you try to keep your weight steady. If you have family members with weight-related health problems, you are more likely to develop them yourself. If you are not sure of your risk of developing a weight-related health problem, you should talk to your health care provider.