March 3, 2016

The Five Percent Solution

Good news for people struggling to lose weight: even small losses can bring serious health benefits.

People who are significantly overweight or obese are often told if they would lose “just” 10 percent of their weight, they'd improve their health and reduce their risk of developing chronic diseases like diabetes and heart disease. It may sound easy, but losing 20 or 25 pounds, for example, can be hard. Often, people just give up.

But what if losing half that much weight could still be beneficial? Maybe more people would stay on their weight-loss regimens? In a new study, researchers found that losing as little as five percent of your body weight can have significant health benefits for obese individuals.

Even a small amount of weight loss can provide some degree of protection against the development of diabetes or heart disease.

Forty obese people were randomly assigned to either maintain their weight or follow a low-calorie diet to lose 5, 10 or 15 percent of their weight. All of the participants already had signs of insulin-resistant glucose metabolism, a risk factor for type 2 diabetes.

Insulin-resistant glucose metabolism is a condition in which the beta cells in the pancreas do not release sufficient insulin to stimulate muscle, fat and liver cells to absorb glucose as levels rise after a meal. Consequently, glucose builds up in the bloodstream instead of going to the cells that need it, and this increases the risk of type 2 diabetes.

Nineteen people on the low-calorie diet in the study lost five percent of their weight, and they saw improved beta cell function and insulin sensitivity. Nine people lost more than five percent of their weight, and experienced even better beta cell function and insulin sensitivity in their muscle cells.

“Taken together, the findings show that 5% weight loss is sufficient to improve health outcomes, with additional weight loss further decreasing risk factors for metabolic and cardiovascular diseases,” said Samuel Klein, professor of medicine and nutritional sciences at Washington University and a co-author of the study, in a statement.

Losing five percent of your weight is much easier than losing the 10 percent the majority of treatment guidelines for obesity recommend. So knowing that significant health benefits can still occur at a much more readily achievable level of weight loss can make a big difference says Dr. Klein.

For those who have been struggling to lose 10 percent of their weight, this is encouraging news. By watching their diets closely and finding ways to increase their physical activity, obese people should be able to achieve a five percent reduction in their weight. Even a small amount of weight loss can provide some degree of protection against the development of diabetes or heart disease.

Future studies are needed to determine whether a five percent weight loss can help other obesity-related conditions like arthritis and lung disease, and whether the improvements seen in this study also apply to people who already have diabetes.

The study is published in Cell Metabolism.

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