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Atherosclerosis: What’s Weight Got to Do With It?

Being overweight is bad for you. Most of us could stand to lose weight. More than two-thirds of Americans are overweight or obese. Losing weight will help you look and feel better and help keep your arteries clear.

Extra weight contributes to atherosclerosis, the No. 1 cause of death in the U.S. Fortunately, taking the weight off can slow down or help prevent atherosclerosis.

Did You Know?

Under the Affordable Care Act, many health insurance plans will cover preventive care services, including obesity screening and nutrition counseling, at no cost to you. Learn more.

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The Link Between Atherosclerosis and Obesity

It's hard for scientists to nail down precisely how much being overweight causes atherosclerosis. That's because obesity often happens along with other problems that cause atherosclerosis. Diabetes, high cholesterol, and high blood pressure are the prime examples.

Nevertheless, it's clear that extra weight itself can hurt you.

Atherosclerosis and Fat

For decades, fat bored most researchers. Excess fat was always felt to somehow contribute to disease, but not by actually doing anything.

In recent years, it's been discovered that fat actually lives a very active life: Fat makes hormones and other messenger chemicals. These messages play a big role in the "conversation" going on in our bodies.

The messages that fat sends out, though, are generally not helpful. Fat makes cytokines (messenger chemicals) that create constant, low levels of inflammation in the body.

The hormones and cytokines that fat makes contribute to atherosclerosis in several ways:

  • Resistance to insulin and poor control of glucose. This can cause diabetes or make it worse.
  • Reduced function of the endothelium, the lining of arteries. This makes them less "toned," inflamed, and more prone to atherosclerosis.
  • A greater tendency to clot. Blood clots are the ultimate cause of heart attacks and strokes.

Today, fat is seen as an active and important contributor to atherosclerosis.

Atherosclerosis and Abdominal Fat

Where the fat is matters, too. Abdominal fat -- the old spare tire -- may be the worst kind of extra pounds. Abdominal fat is linked to insulin resistance and too much sugar in the blood.

Get out a tape measure and measure your waist at the belly button. Having a waist larger than 35 inches in women and 40 inches in men raises the risk of atherosclerosis.

Lose Weight, Lose Risk for Heart Disease

The good news is, losing the weight means losing some of your risk for atherosclerosis and heart disease. Experts agree that weight loss lowers your chances of having a heart attack, stroke, and circulation problems.

Lower, healthier weights lead to:

  • Lower blood pressure
  • Increased "good" cholesterol and decreased "bad" cholesterol
  • Lower tendency to develop diabetes
  • Healthier, more "elastic" blood vessels

Losing weight doesn't just make you feel good inside. It also makes good things happen inside your arteries.

WebMD Medical Reference

Reviewed by Melinda Ratini, DO, MS on April 14, 2013

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