Little Weight Loss Goes a Long Way

If trying to lose those extra pounds is getting you down, don't despair; doctors say even a modest weight loss can net important health benefits.

6 min read

From driving up your blood pressure and cholesterol, to increasing your risk of heart disease, diabetes, cancer, and more, there's no question that being overweight is more than just a cosmetic problem - it's a serious threat to your health.

At the same time, if you're like most folks, even the thought of embarking on a 20-, 40-, or even 100-pound weight-loss plan can seem like a mountain that's impossible to climb.

If this is the way you're feeling right now, take heart. Today, the most progressive weight-loss experts agree you don't have to climb the whole mountain -- or even go halfway up -- to improve your health. Indeed, taking even a few small steps toward your weight-loss goals can go a long way in reducing your health risks, even if you never reach the ideal number on your bathroom scale.

"It's not just about losing weight, it's about being healthy, and when you take even small steps towards establishing a healthier diet and lifestyle you are going to reap big health rewards, even if you don't lose as much weight as you would like," says Henry Anhalt, MD, director of obesity and diabetes at Maimonides Medical Center in New York.

In fact, says Anhalt, when you look at large population studies, relatively modest amounts of weight loss can result in a marked improvement in a number of key health factors, including cholesterol and blood sugar.

"In a person who is 400 pounds, a loss of just 20 pounds can literally turn their health around," says Anhalt.

According to the 2001 U.S. surgeon general's report on obesity, a number of studies show that weight loss as modest as 5%-15% of excess body weight reduces risk factors for a variety of serious medical concerns, particularly cardiovascular disease, at least in the short term.

And, the benefits may be even greater -- and come sooner -- if you are one of tens of thousands who suffer from "metabolic syndrome." This little known phrase describes a relatively common disorder that includes not only toting around some extra pounds, but also falling prey to related abnormalities including high blood pressure, high fasting blood-sugar levels, abnormal cholesterol with low HDL "good" cholesterol, and a large waist circumference.

Experts from the Baylor College of Medicine report that metabolic syndrome may affect up to 40% of people over 50 and nearly one-third between 40 and 50 who have three or more symptoms.

If this is the case for you, studies conducted at Baylor and published in Diabetes, Obesity and Metabolism in 2002 revealed that even a modest weight loss -- just 7%-10% of body weight -- can return all these metabolic levels to normal in just 30 days.

In a second study, the researchers showed that walking just 130 minutes per week, combined with losing just 5%-7% of body weight, offered a 60% reduction in the risk of diabetes.

Regardless of what is causing your weight problem, doctors say you can dramatically increase the health benefits of every single pound you do lose, if your loss is the result of healthy lifestyle changes.

"If your method of losing weight includes things like lowering your cholesterol and fat intake, increasing your metabolic rate through exercise, and eating less junk foods, then in addition to any benefits you get from the actual weight loss, you will also experience other benefits and positive changes in your overall health profile," says Stephen Sondike, MD, director of wellness and nutrition at the Mount Sinai Medical Center in New York.

At the same time, Sondike tells WebMD that losing weight in an unhealthy manner -- for example, by starving yourself or using diet aids like ephedra -- can work against your overall health, sometimes leaving you in worse shape than before you attempted the weight loss.

"Depending on what you take or what you do, you could end up with higher blood pressure and a worse cardiovascular profile than when you weighed more," says Sondike.

Along these same lines, University of Utah nutrition expert Shawn Talbott, PhD, cautions that attempting too stringent a weight-loss plan can also backfire, and take its toll on your health.

"Both extreme calorie restriction and placing yourself under a great deal of mental stress about losing weight has been shown to increase cortisol levels -- the hormone that is associated with high stress," says Talbott, the author of The Cortisol Connection.

When this happens, he says, it causes your appetite to soar -- not only encouraging you to eat more, but also increasing the likelihood that whatever weight you do gain will be stored as abdominal fat.

"This can then increase your risk of heart disease and other significant health problems," says Talbott.

In the end, he says, it's the act of living more healthfully -- and not just dieting -- that matters most, even if you never reach your weight goals.

Anhalt agrees. " A little weight loss achieved in a healthy way is far more beneficial than a large weight loss that happens in an unhealthy way." If you lose even one pound through healthy living, he says, "You do an incredible service to your body and your health."

If you simply take some healthful steps in the direction of your weight-loss goals, you are likely to reap some healthy rewards, even if you never drop a single pound.

As remarkable as that sounds, in studies published in March 2003 in the Annals of Internal Medicine, CDC researchers found that those folks who simply tried to lose weight lived longer.

The finding does not surprise dietitian Samantha Heller, MS, RD, who believes effort does count.

"Very often, simply making the effort to lose weight, such as adding more fruits and vegetables to your diet, reducing your intake of sweets, junk foods, and saturated fats (found in foods like meat, cheese, and butter), and becoming more physically active can improve your overall health and reduce your risk of heart disease and diabetes, too," says Heller, a nutritionist at New York University Medical Center.

So, Heller tells WebMD, even if you never actually lose any weight, doing these things alone is bound to help you feel better and ultimately, impact your health in a positive way.

And many doctors now believe that even if you are unable to lose any weight at all, keeping yourself from gaining pounds as the years go by will also help you gain some important health benefits.

"If you can focus your efforts on achieving a more healthy lifestyle, if you increase your level of physical activity just a little bit, and maybe incorporate some healthful changes into your daily diet you will not only be successful at preventing weight gain, in the process you will be doing something positive for your health," says Sondike.

"In the end," says Anhalt," it's not about the pounds -- it's all about the lifestyle changes, and about understanding that, in the long run, fat and fit is ultimately better than thin and unfit."

If you make the changes that lead to a healthier lifestyle, experts say you will definitely be healthier -- and ironically, you'll probably weigh a lot less as well.