A healthy weight is important for a long, vigorous life. Yet overweight and obesity (extreme overweight) have reached epidemic levels in the United States. Today, nearly two-thirds of American adults are overweight or obese. Groups at highest risk for obesity include African American women,
Mexican Americans, and American Indians, but millions of people from all backgrounds weigh more than is healthy for them. Since 1991, the proportion of Americans who are obese has soared by 75 percent.
Overweight among children is also swiftly increasing. Among young people ages 6–19, more than 16 percent are overweight, compared to just 4 percent a few decades ago.
This is a disturbing trend because overweight adolescents have a greatly increased risk of dying from heart disease in adulthood. Even our youngest citizens are at risk. About 10 percent of preschoolers weigh more than is healthy for them.
Our national waistline is expanding for two simple reasons—we are eating more and moving less. Americans consume about 200–300 more calories per day than they did in the 1970s. Moreover, as we spend more time in front of computers, video games, TV, and other electronic pastimes, we have fewer hours available for physical activity.
There is growing evidence of a link between “couch potato” behavior and increased risk of obesity and many chronic diseases. It is hard to overstate the dangers of an unhealthy weight.
If you are overweight, you are more likely to develop heart disease even if you have no other risk factors. The more overweight a person is, the more likely he or she is to develop heart disease.
Overweight and obesity also increase the risks for diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, stroke, congestive heart failure, gallbladder disease, arthritis, breathing problems, and gout, as well as cancers of the breast and colon.
Each year, an estimated 300,000 U.S. adults die of diseases related to obesity.
The bottom line: Maintaining a healthy weight is a vital part of preventing heart disease and protecting overall health.
Should You Choose To Lose?
Do you need to lose weight to reduce your risk of heart disease? You can find out by taking three simple steps.
Step 1: Get your number. Take a look at the box on the next page. You’ll see that your weight in relation to your height gives you a number called a Body Mass Index (BMI).
A BMI from 18.5 to 24.9 indicates a normal weight. A person with a BMI from 25 to 29.9 is overweight, while someone with a BMI of 30 or higher is obese. Those in the overweight and obese categories have a higher risk of heart disease—and the higher the BMI, the greater the risk.
Step 2: Take out a tape measure. The second step is to take your waist measurement. For women, a waist measurement of over 35 inches increases the risk of heart disease as well as the risks of high blood pressure, diabetes, and other serious health conditions. For men, a waist measurement of more than 40 inches increases these risks.
To measure your waist correctly, stand and place a tape measure around your middle, just above your hipbones. Measure your waist just after you breathe out.
Step 3: Review your risk. The final step in determining your need to lose weight is to find out your other risk factors for heart disease.
It is important to know whether you have any of the following:
high blood pressure, high LDL cholesterol, low HDL cholesterol, high triglycerides, high blood glucose (blood sugar), a family history of heart disease, physical inactivity, or smoking. If you’re a man, being age 45 or older is also a heart disease risk factor. For a woman, being age 55 or older or having gone through menopause increases the risk. If you have a condition known as metabolic syndrome, your risk of heart disease is increased.
Once you’ve taken these three steps, you can use the information to decide if you need to take off pounds. While you should talk with your doctor about whether you should lose weight, keep these guidelines in mind:
- If you are overweight AND have two or more other risk factors, or if you are obese, you should lose weight.
- If you are overweight, have a high waist measurement (over 35 inches for a woman; over 40 inches for a man), AND have two or more other risk factors, you should lose weight.
- If you are overweight, but do not have a high waist measurement and have fewer than two other risk factors, you should avoid further weight gain.
Here is a chart for men and women that gives the BMI for various heights and weights.
What Does Your BMI Mean?
- Normal weight: BMI = 18.5–24.9.
Good for you! Try not to gain weight.
- Overweight: BMI = 25–29.9.
Do not gain any weight, especially if your waist measurement is high. You need to lose weight if you have two or more risk factors for heart disease and are overweight, or have a high waist measurement.
- Obese: BMI = 30 or greater.
You need to lose weight. Lose weight slowly—about 1/2 to 2 pounds a week. See your doctor or nutritionist if you need help.
Lose a Little, Win a Lot
If you need to lose weight, here’s some good news: A small weight loss—just 5 to 10 percent of your current weight—will help to lower your risk for heart disease and other serious medical disorders.
The best way to take off pounds is to do so gradually by getting regular physical activity and eating a balanced diet that is lower in calories and saturated fat. For some people at very high risk, medication also may be necessary.
To develop a weight-loss or weight-maintenance program that works well for you, consult with your doctor, registered dietitian, or qualified nutritionist.