Losing weight protects your heart for years — even if you gain it back

DALLAS — Shedding extra weight provides a healthy boost to the heart — even among so-called “yo-yo” dieters, a new study reveals. Researchers working with the American Heart Association (AHA) say people who lose weight through healthy lifestyle programs are less likely to develop cardiovascular disease or Type 2 diabetes.

These benefits last for at least five years and remain even for those who regain the weight. That’s good news for yo-yo dieters. Previous studies suggested that fluctuations in weight increase the risk of premature death. Researchers in this new study pooled data from 124 reports involving more than 50,000 participants.

“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,” says study co-senior author Susan A. Jebb, Ph.D., a professor of diet and population health at the University of Oxford, in a media release.

“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.”

A host of celebrities have struggled with yo-yo dieting over the years, including Lady Gaga, Mariah Carey, Jessica Simpson, and Christina Aguilera. Compared to people in a less intensive or no weight loss programs, participants who lost weight through an intensive weight loss program had lower risk factors for cardiovascular disease and Type 2 diabetes.

a woman measuring her hips
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These lower risk factors lasted for at least five years after the diet ended. They had lower blood pressure, higher levels of good cholesterol, and less risk of developing cardiovascular disease or diabetes — even after putting the weight back on.

These changes are important because they represent improvements at the population level, Prof. Jebb says. However, more information is necessary to confirm whether the potential benefits for yo-yo dieters persists. Few studies have followed people for more than five years. The average tracking time has been 28 months.

“Most trials look at whether new treatments are effective and focus on weight change in the short-term rather than the effect on later disease,” Jebb said. “Individual studies are often too small to detect differences between groups in the incidence of cardiovascular conditions because, fortunately, they affect only a small proportion of the whole group, and studies may not continue long enough to see the effects on ‘hard’ outcomes, such as a new diagnosis of Type 2 diabetes or a heart attack,” Jebb says.

“Our findings should provide reassurance that weight loss programs are effective in controlling cardiovascular risk factors and very likely to reduce the incidence of cardiovascular disease.”

Illustration of heart inside human body
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Evidence suggests that cardiovascular health improves among those following the American Heart Association’s “Life’s Essential 8” guidelines. They include eating healthy food, being physically active, not smoking, getting enough sleep, maintaining a healthy weight, and controlling cholesterol, blood sugar, and blood pressure levels.

People affected by obesity or who are overweight are at increased risk for high cholesterol and high blood pressure – factors that heighten the risk of cardiovascular disease as well as insulin resistance, which can lead to Type 2 diabetes.

Globally, estimates show being overweight and obese contributed to 2.4 million deaths in 2020. The studies in the analysis included diet and/or exercise interventions, partial or total meal replacement, intermittent fasting, or financial incentives contingent on weight loss.

Average weight loss across the different studies ranged from five to 10 pounds. Weight regain averaged 0.26 to 0.7 pounds per year. Participants were an average age 51 years-old, with a body mass index of 33, which health experts categorize as obese.

The findings are published in the AHA journal Circulation: Cardiovascular Quality and Outcomes.

South West News Service writer Mark Waghorn contributed to this report.

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