The least amount of weight loss needed for drastic health benefits

By John Murphy
Published November 11, 2020

Key Takeaways

America is a nation divided—by weight. It’s true: Half of all Americans (49%) say they’re trying to lose weight, according to data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey.

But Americans think big, which means we often overestimate what we think we can achieve. The average American may have the shape of Homer Simpson, but we often think that with a few sit-ups we could have Superman’s physique. Then, when we’re unable to reach that nearly impossible goal, we’re disappointed, frustrated, and ready to give up. 

What most of us fail to realize is that we don’t need to strive to look like Superman or Wonder Woman to be more healthy. And we don’t have to lose 50 lb to reap health benefits. Although that achievement might get us to our ideal weight, it may not be a very realistic or attainable goal. 

The good news is that losing just a few pounds is enough to make real improvements in our health. 

“Although most dieters strive to achieve ‘ideal’ body weight, clinical and laboratory evidence clearly supports the value of a modest weight loss goal to attain health and emotional benefit,” wrote the late George Blackburn, MD, PhD, a leader in the study of obesity and nutritional medicine, in a classic article in Obesity Research. “Weight loss as low as 5% has been shown to reduce or eliminate disorders associated with obesity.” 

Yes, a weight loss of just 5% can make a meaningful difference if you’re overweight. For a 200-lb man, that’s a loss of only 10 lb. 

Here are some of the ways that a 5% weight loss (or thereabouts) can reduce health risks and provide health and emotional benefits: 

Lowers blood pressure

Modest weight loss can lower high blood pressure. In a prospective observational study published in Obesity Facts, researchers in Italy demonstrated this by putting about 500 obese, hypertensive white men on a 3-month weight-loss program. Participants with uncontrolled hypertension lost an average of 4.9% of body weight, lowered systolic blood pressure by 23 mmHg, and lowered diastolic blood pressure by 9 mmHg. They also reduced blood glucose by 3.1% and LDL cholesterol by 2.1%.

“The magnitude of this BP reduction is comparable to that obtained after adding another antihypertensive drug to the treatment regimen, but with the additional benefit of improving other cardiovascular risk factors such as glucose, LDL and HDL cholesterol, and uric acid levels,” the authors wrote. 

Helps control diabetes

Losing just a few pounds can help protect against diabetes. In a large, well-publicized study in The New England Journal of Medicine, researchers in the Diabetes Prevention Program Research Group recruited 3,234 people at high risk for developing type 2 diabetes. Those who lost at least 7% of body weight—through a low-calorie, low-fat diet and at least 150 minutes/week of moderate intensity exercise—reduced their incidence of diabetes by 58% compared with placebo. 

“An estimated 10 million persons in the United States resemble the participants in the Diabetes Prevention Program in terms of age, body-mass index, and glucose concentrations,” the researchers wrote. “If the study’s interventions were implemented among these people, there would be a substantial reduction in the incidence of diabetes.”

Lowers cancer risk

Nearly 40% of all cancers diagnosed in the United States are associated with overweight and obesity. So managing weight is an important strategy to prevent cancer. For instance, older women who lose weight can lower their risk of breast cancer, according to a study in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute

In this study, researchers found that women aged 50 years and older who lost weight and kept it off had a lower risk of breast cancer than women whose weight remained stable. The more weight they lost, the lower their risk. Specifically, women who lost 20 or more pounds had a 26% lower risk, while those who lost 10–20 lb had a 16% lower risk. But even women who lost only about 4.4–10 lb lowered their breast cancer risk by 13%. 

“Our results suggest that even a modest amount of sustained weight loss is associated with lower breast cancer risk for women over 50,” said lead author Lauren Teras, PhD, an epidemiologist at the American Cancer Society. “These findings may be a strong motivator for the two-thirds of American women who are overweight to lose some of that weight. Even if you gain weight after age 50, it is not too late to lower your risk of breast cancer.”

A few more

Losing a modest amount of body weight has also been shown to: 

Doing yourself a favor

A 5% loss of weight is not a cure-all, of course. For instance, this much weight loss improves metabolic function in many organs concurrently, but it doesn’t alter markers of inflammation, according to a notable study in Cell Metabolism

Still, overweight individuals who achieve weight loss of 5% should feel proud—and healthier. 

“If you weigh 200 pounds, you will be doing yourself a favor if you can lose 10 pounds and keep it off,” said Samuel Klein, MD, principal investigator of the Cell Metabolism study and director of Washington University’s Center for Human Nutrition. “You don’t have to lose 50 pounds to get important health benefits.”

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