How Excess Weight Affects Heart Health

Nearly three out of four US adults are overweight, and more than 40% of adults are obese, according to the CDC. That’s bad news for heart health. Carrying extra pounds puts you at risk for several chronic conditions that impact your heart, including diabetes and high blood pressure. Here, we take a look at the connection between excess body weight and your heart.

Key takeaways:
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    Excess weight and body fat negatively affect heart health.
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    Calculating and understanding your BMI can help you avoid and control health conditions such as high cholesterol, diabetes, and high blood pressure.
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    A proper diet and regular exercise are the best way to manage your weight and heart health.

Overweight and obesity defined

Body mass index (BMI) is a common measure to determine whether someone is overweight or obese. Your BMI is the ratio of your height to your body weight. It’s used to calculate how much body fat you’re carrying. Here’s how it’s broken down:

  • Under 18.5: underweight
  • 18.5 to 24.9: normal weight
  • 25 to 29.9: overweight
  • 30 and above: obese

Let’s take a look at a couple of examples. If a person is six feet tall and weighs 180 pounds, their BMI is 24.4, which falls within the normal range. However, if that same person weighs 225 pounds, they would have a BMI of 30.5, which is considered obese.

BMI, however, does not provide a perfect picture of your body fat’s potential impact on your heart health. That’s because it does not account for where your body accumulates fat.

Excessive body fat that’s concentrated in your abdomen — you might know it as a beer belly — has been tied to numerous health concerns, including heart disease. Some experts consider measures such as waist circumference a more accurate way of assessing health risks associated with being overweight or obese than BMI. Heart disease risks rise for women whose waist measures more than 35 inches, or more than 40 inches for men, according to the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute.

Health problems linked to heart disease and excess weight

High Blood Pressure (Hypertension). Obesity raises your blood pressure, which forces your heart to work harder to pump blood throughout your body. This puts you at higher risk of a heart attack, heart failure, and stroke. Researchers estimate that excess body fat causes more than three-quarters of cases of high blood pressure in men and nearly two-thirds in women.

High Cholesterol. Your body requires some cholesterol to make hormones, vitamin D, and other chemicals required for good health. However, too much cholesterol, especially what’s known as LDL, or bad, cholesterol, puts your heart health at risk. Additionally, being overweight or obese contributes to a rise in bad cholesterol and a drop in HDL, or good, cholesterol.

Excess cholesterol is the main ingredient in plaque deposits that can collect on artery walls. Eventually, this buildup — a process called atherosclerosis — can lead to coronary artery disease (CAD). As your arteries narrow and stiffen, they can no longer deliver an adequate amount of oxygen-rich blood to your heart. If those plaque deposits grow to the point of completely blocking blood flow, you will have a heart attack. However, a heart attack doesn’t require severely narrowed arteries. A heart attack also can occur if a plaque deposit ruptures or breaks apart. This may cause a clot that blocks blood flow, triggering a heart attack.

Diabetes. Being overweight or obese increases your odds of developing type-2 diabetes. This chronic condition impairs your body’s ability to maintain a healthy amount of glucose in your blood. Glucose is a form of sugar that your body extracts from food and uses for energy. When your blood glucose — also called blood sugar — level stays above a healthy level for too long, it can damage your blood vessels and the nerves that help your heart function properly. This type of stress on your blood vessels can result in heart disease. People with diabetes are at high risk of hypertension and high cholesterol, which increase their chances of heart attack, heart failure, and stroke.

Metabolic Syndrome. This is a group of conditions that raise your risk for heart disease, diabetes, and stroke. You may be diagnosed with metabolic syndrome if you have three or more of the following:

  • A large waistline
  • High blood pressure
  • High cholesterol
  • High triglycerides, a type of fat found in the bloodstream which can raise your bad cholesterol
  • High blood glucose

Each of these conditions on its own contributes to the risk of heart disease. Having several exponentially increases your risk. Carrying excess body weight is the primary cause of this metabolic syndrome.

Chronic Inflammation. Your immune system sends out inflammatory cells to fight infection and help heal wounds when you get injured or fall sick. That’s a good thing. However, if that inflammation stays active even when you’re healthy — this is called chronic inflammation — it can damage your heart over time. While the reasons are not entirely understood, obesity triggers inflammation, which increases your risk of high blood pressure and diabetes.

Obstructive Sleep Apnea (OSA). OSA is a common disorder in which a person’s airway collapses repeatedly while sleeping, causing their breathing to stop and start each time this happens. This condition prevents you from getting enough oxygen throughout the night. Over time, OSA can cause numerous heart problems or diseases that can harm your heart, including:

  • High blood pressure
  • Heart attack
  • Heart failure
  • Arrhythmias (or irregular heart rhythms, which can be deadly)
  • Cardiomyopathy (enlargement of your heart’s muscle tissue)
  • Diabetes

How is OSA connected to excess weight? If you are overweight or obese, fatty deposits in your neck can block your upper airways. This disrupts your breathing. If you carry around excess abdominal fat, this can compress your chest as you sleep, interfering with your lungs’ ability to function properly. The higher your BMI, the higher your risk for sleep apnea.

Weight loss and exercise help reduce your risk of heart disease

Even small goals can have big results when it comes to improving your odds of avoiding heart disease. Experts recommend losing 5% to 10% of your body weight over a period of six months. Such changes can lower your blood pressure, blood glucose, and cholesterol while slimming your waistline. To lose weight — and keep it off — you’ll need to focus on diet and exercise.

Diet. It’s not just about eating less, though cutting calories is an essential part of weight loss. You also must eat nutritious food. One eating plan that can help your heart is the Mediterranean diet. It emphasizes vegetables, fruits, whole grains, extra virgin olive oil and other healthy fats, and legumes, such as beans. Lean poultry, fish, and seafood in moderate amounts should replace red meat.

Exercise. Aim for 150 minutes a week of aerobic exercise. You can break that down however best works for you, but 30 minutes a day, five days a week, is a good starting place. You should choose exercises you like to increase your odds of sticking with them. Also, mix them up to help keep them interesting. Aerobic exercises include walking, biking, running, dancing, and swimming. Talk to your doctor about what’s best for you and how to get started safely, especially if you have not exercised in a while.