Heart Disease and Weight

Weight gain increases risk for heart disease, but the good news is that losing weight can help decrease the risk.
Ripples in water
There is a definite link between body weight and heart disease. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), obesity is a major risk factor for heart disease, which is the No. 1 cause of death globally. While some causes for this higher risk are understood, others are not.

For example, studies show that obesity is linked to:
  • Increases in LDL cholesterol (bad cholesterol) and triglycerides
  • Decreases in HDL cholesterol (good cholesterol)
  • High blood pressure
  • Increased risk for type 2 diabetes: The combination of excess weight and diabetes is associated with a greater risk for heart disease and developing complications from diabetes.
Even when no risk factors are present, excess weight itself increases risk for heart disease.

Excess weight increases heart disease risk.
Excess weight, particularly as visceral fat, leads to big increases in risk. For example, in a study of nearly 6,000 people from the hallmark Framingham Heart Study, the risk of heart failure increased 5 percent for men and 7 percent for women with each additional Body Mass Index (BMI) point (around 5 to 6 pounds).1

Another study of almost 116,000 nurses found that the likelihood of developing heart disease was about 75 percent greater for overweight women compared to women at a healthy weight, and the risk tripled for women with a BMI higher than 29.2 Similarly, in a study published by the European Heart Journal, overweight men had a 58 percent increased risk of heart disease, and obese men had more than double the risk.3 In Korea, abdominal obesity increased heart disease risk, regardless of the level of physical activity.4 Increased risk of heart disease has been linked to both high BMI and large waist circumference.5

Gaining a small amount of weight during the early adult years can also increase the risk of developing the disease later on. For example, researchers estimate that for every 2.2 pounds gained after high school, risk for heart disease increases by 5.7 percent for women and 3.1 percent for men.6

The Impact of Weight Loss
Just as research has found that weight gain increases risk, studies have also shown that weight loss, even in small amounts, can lead to big improvements in cardiovascular risk factors. Researchers estimate that for every 2.2 pounds of weight lost, total cholesterol levels decrease by 1 percent, LDL cholesterol is lowered by 0.7 percent and HDL cholesterol is increased by 0.2 percent.2 Likewise, many studies have found that losing 5 to 10 percent of body weight results in significant decreases in triglycerides, waist circumference, glucose, insulin and blood pressure.7,8

Bottom Line: Maintaining a healthy weight or focusing on lifestyle changes that lead to a 5 to 10 percent loss in body weight can play a significant role in reducing the risk of heart disease.

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Other Science Library topics:

Body Weight and Diabetes

Smoking and Weight


1 Kenchaiah S, Evan JC, Sc D, levy D, Wilson, PW, Benjamin EM, Larson MG, Kannge WB, Vasan RS. Obesity and the risk of heart failure. The New England Journal of Medicine. 2002 August1;347(5):305-313.

2 Willett WC, Manson JE, Stampfer MJ, Colditz GA, Rosner B, Speizer FE, Hennekens CH. Weight, weight change and coronary heart disease in women. Risk within the 'normal' weight range. JAMA. 1995 February 8;273(6)461-465.

3 Rosengren A, Wedel H, Wilhelmsen L. Body weight and weight gain during adult life in men in relation to coronary heart disease and mortality. European Heart Journal. 1999;20:269-277.

4 Kim J, Han HR. Physical activity, abdominal obesity and the risk of coronary heart disease: A Korean national sample study. Public Health. 2012 May;126(5):410-6.

5 Rexrode KM, Hu FB, Glynn RJ, Caspard H, Manson JE, Willett WC, Rimm EB. Body mass index, waist circumference, and risk of coronary heart disease: a prospective study among men and women. Obes Res Clin Pract. 2010 Jul;4(3):e171-e181.

6 Anderson JW, Konz EC. Obesity and disease management: effects of weight loss on comorbid conditions. Obes Res. 2001 November;9(4)326S-334S.

7 Graffagnino CL, Falko JM, Londe ML, Shaumburg J, Hyek MF, Shaffer LE, Snow R, Caulin-Glaser T. Effect of a community-based weight management program on weight loss and cardiovascular disease risk. Obesity. 2006 Febrary;14(2):280-288.

8 Villareal DT, Miller BV, Banks M, Fontana L, Sinacore DR, Klein S. Effect of lifestyle intervention on metabolic coronary heart disease risk factors in obese older adults. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. 2006 December;84(6)1317-1323.