If you are overweight or have obesity, you might think you need to lose a lot of weight to improve your health. It can feel daunting. But actually, you can start to get health benefits from a small amount of weight loss.
Research shows that it’s possible to lower your blood pressure and cholesterol, cut your risk of type 2 diabetes, improve joint pain, and boost your cardiovascular health by losing less than 10% of your total body weight.
Losing 5% to 10% is “modest but clinically significant,” says Melanie Jay, MD, associate professor in the departments of medicine and population health at New York University. And for some people, healthy changes can start even sooner – by losing as little as 2% of their weight. “People can lose a very modest amount of weight and really have an increased quality of life,” Jay says.
Take triglycerides, for example. They’re a type of fat in your blood. You’ve probably seen your triglyceride levels noted along with your cholesterol levels on blood tests done at a routine checkup. If your triglyceride levels are too high and your cholesterol levels aren’t good, that can make a heart attack or stroke more likely.
Triglyceride levels can improve by losing just 2% to 5% of body weight for people who are overweight or have obesity and have type 2 diabetes. Researchers learned that by studying more than 5,100 people with type 2 diabetes for a year. The same people also saw their systolic blood pressure improve. (Systolic blood pressure is the top number in a blood pressure reading.)
Modest weight loss can also lead to health benefits you can actually feel in daily life. For example, knee pain may ease up when some of the extra pounds are gone. In one study, overweight or obese older adults with knee osteoarthritis reported less knee pain when they lost an average of about 6% of their total body weight. For each pound of weight loss, the load on their knee with each step during daily activities was four times lower.
If you weigh 200 pounds, losing 10 pounds (5%) might not sound significant. But it reduces pressure on the lower body during exercise, says David Sarwer, PhD, director of the Center for Obesity Research and Education at Temple University.
“They’re able to exercise for longer periods of time and more frequently, which is one of the strongest predictors of maintaining weight loss,” he says. “So while that 5% weight loss may not be noticeable to other people, that’s the first good goal that may allow you to lose more weight.”
The health boosts really start to stack up at this level.
For instance, if you are overweight or have obesity and have type 2 diabetes, you might see improvements in HDL (often called “good”) cholesterol and in diastolic blood pressure (the bottom number in a blood pressure reading).
The National Diabetes Prevention Program (DPP), which focuses on lifestyle measures to prevent type 2 diabetes, provides another striking example of how even modest weight loss can improve health. The DPP focuses on healthy eating and physical activity.
The research includes a studyof more than 3,200 people who were overweight or had obesity and were prediabetic. They were split into three groups:
- Lifestyle (the DPP’s plan, which included a low-calorie, low-fat diet and at least 150 minutes of exercise per week) with a goal of losing at least 7% of their body weight)
- Medication to prevent type 2 diabetes
- Placebo (no lifestyle plan or medication)
The people in the lifestyle group lost, on average, 6.7% of their body weight – and they were 58% less likely to develop type 2 diabetes during the study, compared to those in the placebo group. Every 2.2 pounds of weight lost cut the odds of developing type 2 diabetes during the study by 16%. If you’re interested in finding a DPP program near you, you can search for one here.
Health goals can be separate from appearance goals when it comes to weight loss. “A 5% weight loss your friends and family might not notice,” Jay says. “So make sure you have your own back and say, ‘I lost 5% of my weight and I’m doing a lot of really great things for my health.’”
With lifestyle change, people can lose an average of 5% to 10% of their total body weight in about 6 months, Sarwer says. But “many people struggle to maintain that weight loss,” he says. And regaining the weight often means losing the health benefits.
If your weight loss was the result of obesity medication or bariatric surgery, you’ll also face weight maintenance.
So how can you maintain your modest weight loss? The National Weight Control Registry, considered the largest prospective investigation of long-term successful weight loss maintenance, found that most of its members keep weight off by weighing themselves at least weekly, eating breakfast daily, and exercising an average of an hour per day.
“There is no short-term solution,” Sarwer says. “It takes consistent and sustained behavioral change.” If you took obesity medication, it may mean staying on that medication indefinitely. Your doctor can help you decide what’s best for you.