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People who are considered metabolically healthy may still have a higher risk of developing heart problems if they are obese.
Obesity still increases risks of many chronic diseases

By David Dunaief, M.D.

Have we entered a fourth dimension where it’s possible to be obese and healthy? Hold on to your seats for this wild ride. This would be a big relief, since more than one-third of Americans are obese, another third are overweight and the numbers are on the rise (1). In one analysis referenced by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the average medical cost for obesity alone is 41.5 percent higher than for those of normal weight, based on 2006 numbers (2). Still, there are several studies that suggest it’s possible to be metabolically healthy and still be obese.

What does metabolically healthy mean? It is defined as having no increased risk of diabetes or cardiovascular disease (heart disease and stroke) because blood pressure, cholesterol levels and inflammatory biomarkers remain within normal limits.

However, read on before thinking that obesity can be equated with health. Though several studies may suggest metabolic health with obesity, there is a caveat: Some of these obese patients will go on to become metabolically unhealthy; but even more importantly, obesity will increase their risk significantly for a number of other chronic diseases. These include osteoarthritis, diverticulitis, rheumatoid arthritis and migraine. There is also a higher rate of premature mortality, or death, associated with obesity. In other words, the short answer is that obesity is NOT healthy.

Metabolically healthy obesity

Several published studies imply that there is such a thing as “metabolically healthy obesity,” or MHO. In the Cork and Kerry Diabetes and Heart Disease Phase 2 Study, results show that approximately one-third of obese patients may fall into the category of metabolically “healthy” (3). This means that they are not at increased risk of cardiovascular disease, based on five metabolic parameters, including LDL “bad” cholesterol, HDL “good” cholesterol, triglycerides, fasting plasma glucose and insulin resistance. The researchers compared three groups: MHO, metabolically unhealthy obese and nonobese participants. Both the MHO participants and the nonobese patients demonstrated these positive results.

There were over 2,000 participants involved in this study, with an equal proportion of men and women ranging in age from 45 to 75. The researchers believe that a beneficial inflammation profile, including a lower C-reactive protein and a lower white blood cell count, may be at the root of these results.

In the North West Adelaide Health Study, a prospective (forward-looking) study, the results show that one-third of obese patients may be metabolically healthy, but it goes further to say that this occurs in mostly younger patients, those less than 40 years old, and those with a lower waist circumference and more fat in the legs (4). The reason for the positive effects may have to do with how fat is transported through the body.

In metabolically unhealthy obese patients, fat is deposited in the organs, such as the liver and heart, potentially leading to cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes. A theory is that mitochondria, the cells’ energy source, are disrupted, potentially increasing inflammation.

However, the results also showed that over a 10-year period, one-third of “healthy” obese patients transitioned into the unhealthy category. Over a longer period of time, this number may increase.

Premature mortality

To hammer the nail into the coffin, so to speak, obesity may be associated with premature mortality. In one study, about 20 percent of American patient deaths were associated with being obese or overweight (5). The rates were highest among white men, white women and black women. The researchers found this statistic surprising; previous estimates were far lower. Researchers reviewed a registry of 19 consecutive National Health Interview Surveys, from 1986 to 2004, including more than 500,000 patients with ages ranging from 40 to 84.9 years old.

Interestingly, obesity seems to have more of an effect on mortality as we age: obesity raised mortality risk 100 percent in those who were 65 and over, compared to a 25 percent increased risk in those who were 45.

Osteoarthritis

It is unlikely that any group of obese patients would be able to avoid pressure on their joints. In an Australian study, those who were obese had a greater than two times increased risk of developing osteoarthritis of the hip and a greater than seven times increased risk of developing osteoarthritis of the knee (6). If this weren’t bad enough, obese patients complained of increased pain and stiffness, as well as decreased functioning, in the hip and knee joints. There were over 1,000 adults involved in this study. Patients who were 39 years or older demonstrated that obesity’s impact on osteoarthritis can affect those who are relatively young.

There is a solution to obesity and its impact on osteoarthritis of the knees and hips. In a randomized controlled trial of 454 patients over 18 months, those who lost just 10 percent of their body weight saw significant improvement in function and knee joint pain, compared to those who lost less than 10 percent of their body weight (7). So, if you are 200 pounds, this would mean you would experience benefits after losing only 20 pounds.

When diet and exercise together were utilized, patients saw the best outcomes, with reduced pain and inflammation and increased mobility, compared to diet or exercise alone. However, diet was superior to exercise in improving knee joint pressure. Also, inflammatory biomarkers were reduced significantly more in the combined diet and exercise group and in the diet alone group, compared to the exercise alone group.

The diet was composed of two shakes and a dinner that was vegetable rich and low in fat. The exercise component involved both walking with alacrity plus resistance training for a modest frequency of three times a week for one hour each time. Thus, if you were considering losing weight and did not want to start both exercise and diet regimens at once, focusing on a vegetable-rich diet may be most productive.

While it is interesting that some obese patients are metabolically healthy, this does not necessarily last, and there are a number of chronic diseases involved with increased weight. Though we should not be prejudiced or judgmental of obese patients, this disease needs to be treated to avoid increased risk of mortality and increased risk of developing other diseases.

References: (1) CDC.gov. (2) Health Aff. September/October 2009;vol. 28 no. 5 w822-w831. (3) J Clin Endocrinol Metab online. 2013 Aug. 26. (4) Diabetes Care. 2013;36:2388-2394. (5) Am J Public Health online. 2013 Aug. 15. (6) BMC Musculoskelet Disord. 2012;13:254. (7) JAMA. 2013;310:1263-1273.

Dr. Dunaief is a speaker, author and local lifestyle medicine physician focusing on the integration of medicine, nutrition, fitness and stress management. For further information, visit www.medicalcompassmd.com or consult your personal physician.

Sedentary lifestyle increases risk in the young

By David Dunaief, M.D.

Dr. David Dunaief

First, the good news: We have made great strides in reducing mortality from heart attacks. When we compare cardiovascular disease — heart disease and stroke — mortality rates from 1975 to the present, there is a substantial decline of approximately one-quarter. However, if we look at these rates since 1990, the rate of decline has slowed (1).

Plus, one in 10 visits to the emergency room are related to potential heart attack symptoms. Luckily, only 10 to 20 percent of these patients actually are having a heart attack (2). We need to reduce our risk factors to improve this scenario.

Some risk factors are obvious, while others are not. The obvious ones include age (men at least 45 years old and women at least 55 years old), family history, high cholesterol, high blood pressure, obesity, sedentary lifestyle, diabetes and smoking. Less obvious risk factors include gout, atrial fibrillation and osteoarthritis. Lifestyle modifications, including a high-fiber diet and exercise, also may help allay the risks.

Let’s look at the evidence.

Obesity

On a board exam in medicine, if smoking is one of the choices with disease risk, you can’t go wrong by choosing it. Well, it appears that the same axiom holds true for obesity. But how substantial a risk factor is obesity? In the Copenhagen General Population Study, results showed an increased heart attack risk in obese

(BMI >30 kg/m²) individuals with or without metabolic syndrome (high blood pressure, high cholesterol and high sugar) and in those who were overweight (BMI >25 kg/m²) (3). The risk of heart attack increased in direct proportion to weight. Specifically, there was a 26 percent increase in heart attack risk for those who were overweight and an 88 percent increase in risk for those who were obese without metabolic syndrome. This study had a follow-up of 3.6 years.

It is true that those with metabolic syndrome and obesity together had the highest risk. But, it is quite surprising that obesity, by itself, can increase heart attack risk when a person is “metabolically healthy.” Since this was an observational trial, we can only make an association, but if it is true, then there may not be such thing as a “metabolically healthy” obese patient. Therefore, if you are obese, it is really important to lose weight.

Lifestyle modifications such as weight loss, physical activity and diet can help decrease the risk of heart attacks.

Sedentary lifestyle

If obesity were not enough of a wake-up call, let’s look at another aspect of lifestyle: the impact of being sedentary. A recent observational study found that activity levels had a surprisingly high impact on heart disease risk (4). Of four key factors — weight, blood pressure, smoking and physical inactivity — age was the determinant as to which one had the most negative effect on women’s heart disease risk. Those under the age of 30 saw smoking as most negatively impactful. For those over the age of 30, lack of exercise became the most dominant risk factor for heart disease, including heart attacks.

For women over the age of 70, the study found that increasing physical activity may have a greater positive impact than addressing high blood pressure, losing weight, or even quitting smoking. However, since high blood pressure was self-reported and not necessarily measured in a doctor’s office, it may have been underestimated as a risk factor. Nonetheless, the researchers indicated that women should make sure they exercise on a regular basis to most significantly reduce heart disease risk.

Osteoarthritis

The prevailing thought with osteoarthritis is that it is best to suffer with hip or knee pain as long as possible before having surgery. But when do we cross the line and potentially need joint replacement? Well, in a recent study, those with osteoarthritis of the hip or knee joints that caused difficulty walking on a flat surface were at substantially greater risk of cardiovascular events, including heart attack (5). Those who had surgery for the affected joint saw a substantially reduced heart attack risk. It is important to address the causes of osteoarthritis to improve mobility, whether with surgery or other treatments.

Gout

When we think of gout, we relate it to kidney stones. But gout increases the risk of heart attacks by 82 percent, according to an observational study (6). Gout tends to affect patients more when they are older, but the risk of heart attack with gout is greater in those who are younger, ages 45 to 69, than in those over 70. What can we do to reduce these risk factors?

There have been studies showing that fiber decreases the risk of heart attacks. However, does fiber still matter when someone has a heart attack? In a recent analysis using data from the Nurses’ Health Study and the Health Professional Follow-up Study, results showed that higher fiber plays an important role in reducing the risk of death after a heart attack (7). Those who consumed the most fiber, compared to the least, had a 25 percent reduction in post-heart attack mortality.

Even more impressive is the fact that those who increased their fiber after the cardiovascular event had a 31 percent reduction in mortality risk. In this analysis, it seemed that more of the benefit came from fiber found in cereal. The most intriguing part of the study was the dose-response. For every 10-g increase in fiber consumption, there was a 15 percent reduction in the risk of post-heart attack mortality. Since we get too little fiber anyway, this should be an easy fix.

Lifestyle modifications are so important. In the Nurses’ Health Study, which followed 120,000 women for 20 years, those who routinely exercised, ate a quality diet, did not smoke and were a healthy weight demonstrated a whopping 84 percent reduction in the risk of a cardiovascular event such as a heart attack (8).

What have we learned? We can substantially reduce the risk of heart attacks and even potentially the risk of death after sustaining a heart attack with lifestyle modifications that include weight loss, physical activity and diet — with, in this case, a focus on fiber. While there are a number of diseases that contribute to heart attack risk, most of them are modifiable. With disabling osteoarthritis, addressing the causes of difficulty with mobility may also help reduce heart attack risk.

References: (1) Heart. 1998;81(4):380. (2) JAMA Intern Med. 2014;174(2):241-249. (3) JAMA Intern Med. 2014;174(1):15-22. (4) Br J Sports Med. 2014, May 8. (5) Presented Research: World Congress on OA, 2014. (6) Rheumatology (Oxford). 2013 Dec;52(12):2251-2259. (7) BMJ. 2014;348:g2659. (8) N Engl J Med. 2000;343(1):16.

Dr. Dunaief is a speaker, author and local lifestyle medicine physician focusing on the integration of medicine, nutrition, fitness and stress management. For further information, visit www.medicalcompassmd.com or consult your personal physician.

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