Looking good is nice, but going from being overweight or obese toward a normal weight does more than help you fit into those jeans — you may actually reduce a number of significant health risks, too.
The condition most associated with excess body weight is Type 2 diabetes, but there are a number of other chronic, sometimes deadly, issues as well.
Before getting into those associations, there’s good news, too: Researchers from Harvard University note that losing just 5–10% of bodyweight can make a big difference in lowering your risk levels, even if you never achieve your goal weight — and even if you only begin to lose weight later in life.
As you do lower your weight, especially if you’re dealing with obesity, these are the risks that will likely begin to lower as well:
It’s normal for the liver to contain some fat, but when more than 10% of the organ’s weight is from fat, you risk developing nonalcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD). Closely associated with excess weight, this condition can lead to swelling in the liver, which, in some cases, may lead to organ failure.
NAFLD can result from some medication use — like prednisone, tetracycline and tamoxifen— as well as high cholesterol, but most often, doctors look at diet as the major culprit. Consistently eating highly processed, high-fat, high-sugar diets can overtax the liver, which has to deal with shuttling the gunk from your system.
The National Institutes of Health estimate that 30–40% of adults in the U.S. have the condition; some believe those numbers will climb even higher.
“If your condition is happening as a result of your habits, and you change those, then you have a good chance of reversing the disease,” says Wayne Eskridge, CEO of the nonprofit Fatty Liver Foundation. “But even if you’re not dealing with NAFLD now, consider the fact that you might need to be doing more in terms of prevention.”
Many think strokes are a problem for older people, but there has been a sharp rise in incidence among younger folk as well, mainly because of increases in weight-related problems like diabetes and lipid disorders.
“Compared to 20 years ago, incidence of stroke is rising in young adults to a significant degree,” says Dr. Diana Greene-Chandos, director of neurocritical care at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center. She cites a study that found ischemic stroke hospitalization rates are increasing for both men and women under age 45, particularly in areas where obesity is a larger issue.
Lowering weight, and getting health markers checked, can be helpful as a preventative measure.
“Get a wellness check, even if you think you’re too young and you’re healthy,” Greene-Chandos advises. “Know your numbers. And most of all, don’t think that strokes are just for older people. That’s simply not the case.”
Recent research links excess weight to increased risk of several types of cancer, including colon, esophagus, kidney, breast, uterine, stomach, liver, gallbladder, pancreas, brain, thyroid and bone marrow.
The average person would need to gain only about 25 pounds over what’s considered his or her normal weight to increase risk, says Dr. Graham Colditz, chair of the IARC Working Group, the organization that undertook a major research study on link between cancer and obesity.
That might be because obesity can cause changes to your metabolism and hormones in a way that causes chronic inflammation. The study notes that the evidence linking this inflammation to cancer is strong.
The good news is a reduction in weight, even by 5%, can begin to lower cancer risk, Dr. Colditz says. “Avoiding more weight gain will certainly avoid further increase in risk of cancer,” he says. “The first approach should be to keep weight constant.”
With excess weight, lung function can be compromised, Harvard University researchers noted. The accumulation of abdominal fat, for example, can limit how the diaphragm moves — and in turn, that can lower lung expansion. Also, visceral fat can reduce flexibility of the chest wall and narrow airways in the lungs.
When this occurs, it puts you at higher risk for major problems like asthma and obstructive sleep apnea. The researchers pointed out that an analysis of seven studies showed obesity increases asthma risk by 50%.
Sleep apnea, which is also linked to excess weight and particularly obesity, can lead to a number of other problems, such as hypertension and cardiovascular disease.
Several studies have noted a strong correlation between depression and obesity, with the relationship going in both directions. Obesity increases the risk of depression and depression increases the risk of obesity. The situation is sometimes exacerbated by the use of antidepressants, which often have weight gain as a side effect.
Those with depression can struggle with poor self-image, unhealthy habits like overeating and social isolation, which can all feed the depression-obesity cycle. Good news here, too, though: Depression is highly treatable as a condition, according to Scott Dehorty, a social worker at Delphi Behavioral Health.
“This can be a scary, serious illness,” Dehorty says. “But we know a great deal about how to address it and treat it. No one should feel hopeless; there is help available.”
In addition to the major conditions covered here, excess body weight can be a factor in other problems, too, including reproduction, cardiovascular health, musculoskeletal disorders, kidney disease and even cognitive function.
But, as the Harvard researchers noted, it doesn’t take a 100-pound drop to get your risk factors headed in the right direction. Incremental changes — and especially long-term, sustained weight loss — can be a major boon to your long-term health.