Health & Wellness

Even modest weight gain in adulthood can hurt your health

Even a modest amount of weight gained between early adulthood and middle age may raise your risk of serious chronic disease and premature death, a new study suggests.

Compared to people whose weight remained stable, those who had gained 5 to 22 pounds by the time they were 55 had a higher risk of heart disease, high blood pressure, obesity-related cancer, and dying early, Harvard researchers found. The risks went up with greater weight gain, according to the study published in JAMA.

It didn’t examine whether losing the extra pounds would lessen the damage.

But, “there are previous studies [suggesting that] the obesity-related risk profile could be improved by weight loss,” said the study’s lead author, Yan Zheng, who worked on it while a postdoctoral fellow at Harvard University’s Chan School of Public Health, and who is now professor of epidemiology at Fudan University in China.

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Zheng and her colleagues analyzed health data from 92,837 women who took part in the Nurses’ Health Study and 25,303 men from the Health Professionals Follow-Up Study. Women had been asked to recall their weight at age 18, while men were asked to jot down their weight at age 21.

Participants in the NHS and the HPFUS were asked their current weight when they joined the studies and every two years after that. On average, women gained 22 pounds between 18 and 55, while men gained 19 pounds.

Looking at data from men and women together, the researchers found that for each 11 pounds gained, there was a 30 percent increase in the risk of Type 2 diabetes, a 14 percent increase in the risk for high blood pressure, a 6 percent increase in the risk of obesity-related cancers, and a 5 percent increase in the risk of dying prematurely. That 11 pounds also reduced the likelihood a person would score well on a healthy aging assessment of physical and cognitive health by 17 percent.

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How a few extra pounds can harm our health

Even small weight gains can adversely affect our lipids and insulin resistance, boost the production of inflammatory molecules, and cause the sympathetic nervous system to become over-active, Zheng said.

What about people who try to control their weights by yo-yo dieting?

An earlier study found women who periodically crash diet to lose 10 or more pounds had three times the risk of dying suddenly from a heart attack, compared to women whose weight remained stable.

“I would say that both are bad,” Zheng said. “But I could not say which is worse. We would do better keeping our weight stable via healthy dietary habits and physical activity.”

Zheng also cautions women to carefully monitor their weight during pregnancy. “A lot of previous studies have indicated that excess weight gain during pregnancy is harmful to both mom and offspring,” she said.

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Losing a little can help

The new findings may help people understand why they need to work at maintaining a normal weight, said Kristin Kirkpatrick, manager of wellness nutrition services at the Cleveland Clinic Wellness Institute, and author of “Skinny Liver.”

“I believe it can help communicate the importance of a healthy weight and the impact that weight gain over time can have, especially on the risk of Type 2 diabetes and related conditions, like nonalcoholic fatty liver disease, which have skyrocketed in the past few decades,” said Kirkpatrick, who is a contributor for TODAY. “This is especially timely since recent studies have shown that fewer overweight adults are trying to lose weight.”

While the new study shows what can happen with weight gain, “it’s imperative to also pay attention to the various studies that have demonstrated the very positive impact that losing just 5 to 10 percent of body weight has on chronic disease risk,” Kirkpatrick said. “So if you are an individual who has to lose 100 pounds, just starting and losing a little is a step in the right direction.”

Another point to keep in mind, Kirkpatrick said, is that the new study only looked at weight. Other research has underscored the importance of where we store our fat, Kirkpatrick said. “Weight is important, but waist size is something we all need to pay more attention to.”

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