March 28, 2023 – A new analysis gives a promising answer to the weight loss question: Is it better to have lost and gained, than never to have lost at all?
People who lost weight but regained some of it experienced sustained health improvements for at least 5 years after the initial weight loss, a new study says. The prolonged benefits included lowered risks of heart disease and type 2 diabetes, as well as improved blood pressure and cholesterol levels.
“Many doctors and patients recognize that weight loss is often followed by weight regain, and they fear that this renders an attempt to lose weight pointless,” said University of Oxford professor and researcher Susan A. Jebb, PhD, in a statement. “This concept has become a barrier to offering support to people to lose weight. For people with overweight or obesity issues, losing weight is an effective way to reduce the risk of Type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease.”
The results were published on Tuesday in Circulation: Cardiovascular Quality and Outcomes. The researchers analyzed data from 124 previously published studies in which people lost weight in what are called “behavioral weight loss programs.” Those programs focus on lifestyle and behavior changes such as eating healthy foods and increasing physical activity.
The average participant was 51 years old and considered obese based on body mass index (a measure that combines weight and height). On average, people lost between 5 and 10 pounds and typically regained less than 1 pound per year.
People who participated in the most intensive programs had significant long-lasting benefits, compared to people in less intensive programs or who followed no formal weight loss program at all. Programs that were considered intensive had features such as partial or total meal replacement, intermittent fasting, or financial incentives contingent on weight loss.
Specific average benefits included:
- Systolic blood pressure was decreased by 1.5 points one year after program participation, and by 0.4 points lower at 5 years.
- The level of HbA1c, a protein in red blood cells used to test for diabetes, saw a sustained 5-year reduction.
- A cholesterol measure that compares total cholesterol to “good” or HDL cholesterol was 1.5 points lower at the 1-year and 5-year marks after participation in an intensive program.
The benefits of weight loss did diminish as people regained more and more weight, the researchers found.
Obesity affects 42% of U.S. adults, according to the CDC, and is known to increase the risk of many dangerous health conditions, including heart disease, which is the leading cause of death in the U.S. Obesity is defined as a body mass index of 30 or higher.
The new findings could play a particularly important role in addressing weight gain that often happens after people stop taking weight loss medications, wrote Vishal N. Rao, MD, MPH, and Neha J. Pagidipati, MD, MPH, both of the Duke University School of Medicine, in a letter published alongside the new study. They called the reported risk reductions “favorable, although modest,” and said data showing longer-term results are needed.