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Even moderate weight loss for obesity improves heart function

Kathleen Blanchard's picture

Moderate weight loss for individuals battling obesity is now found to improve heart function. Findings from Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis show that following a diet and weight loss program resulting in modest weight loss can reduce thickening of the heart and improve heart function.

Lisa de las Fuentes, M.D., a Washington University heart specialist at Barnes-Jewish Hospital and assistant professor of medicine in the Cardiovascular Division at the School of Medicine explains, "It's important to realize that you can choose goals that are attainable and work progressively toward them. You don't necessarily need to lose 50 pounds to improve your heart function."

The study included moderately obese individuals with body mass index (BMI) between 30 and 44, who lost weight by following either a low-carbohydrate or a low-fat diet. Sixty individuals were followed for two years, losing weight over a six month period. Following weight loss of just 9 percent of body fat (average 22 pounds), heart function was measurably improved six to twelve months after weight loss occurred.

Forty eight individuals completed the a two year follow up showing that modest weight loss lead to decreased thickening of the heart muscle that can be a predictor of heart disease. Three other key areas of vascular health also improved that included relaxation and decreased thickening of the carotid (neck) arteries that supply blood flow to the brain, and improved pumping and increased relaxation of the heart muscle.

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Most of the study participants regained some weight. Some of the benefits of improved heart function associated with modest weight lost persisted even after two years. Dr. Fuentes says, "Losing 20 or so pounds might seem daunting to some people, but we showed that even a more modest weight loss can yield heart and vascular benefits.”

The program included eating less and primarily walking three and a half hours per week. For women, food intake was restricted to 1,200 to 1,500 calories daily, and for men, 1,500 to 1,800 calories. All of the study participants had modest heart dysfunction at the start of the study, shown by advanced imaging techniques. Improved heart function was measureable with just modest weight loss.

The importance of the study is that even moderate weight loss shows benefits of improved heart function. Obesity puts a strain on the heart that causes the heart muscles to thicken. Over time the pumping action of the heart can decline, leading to fluid buildup in the lungs from heart failure. Thickening of the carotid arteries can lead to stroke. A simple walking program combined with decreased calorie intake that provides even modest weight loss can improve heart function for moderately obese individuals, helping with heart disease prevention.

Modest weight loss improved heart function among the study group. Weight loss was gradual and accomplished through diet and primarily walking for three and half hours a week. Most participants regained some weight, but the benefits to heart health were sustained. At the end of the study, sustained weight loss of about nine pounds was shown to improve heart function.

J Am Coll Cardiol, 2009; 54:2376-2381, doi:10.1016/j.jacc.2009.07.054