For every 100 people who are obese, only perhaps one will reach a healthy weight again, a new study states.
Since obesity is directly linked to a higher incidence of disease and a shorter lifespan, that’s a big problem.
Researchers with the National Institute for Health Research (NIHR) in the United Kingdom used a decade’s worth of digital health records for 278,982 people — 129,194 men and 149,788 women — and concluded current methods of getting people to lose weight aren’t working.
The study, published Thursday in the American Journal of Public Health, highlights the real world outcomes for obese adults in developed countries.
In the United States, almost 35 percent of adults and 17 percent of children — or more than 91 million people — are obese, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Obesity is defined as when a person’s body mass index, or BMI, is greater than 30.
Researchers used only data from patients with at least three BMI measurements between 2004 and 2014. They found the odds of losing weight directly correlated with how much weight a person carried.
Losing Weight Is Often a Losing Battle
Researchers said the overall chances of an obese man obtaining a normal body weight were 1 in 210. For women, it was 1 in 124.
Those odds worsen as a person’s weight increases.
Men with a BMI over 40 had a 1 in 1,290 chance of becoming healthy while women in that category had a 1 in 677 chance.
Losing 5 percent of their weight was successful for about 10 percent of women and 1 in 12 men.
“Once an adult becomes obese, it is very unlikely that they will return to a healthy body weight,” Alison Fildes, Ph.D., first author of the study from the Division of Health and Social Care Research at King’s College London, said in a press release.
Keeping the weight off is an even more difficult battle.
About 53 percent of patients regained lost weight within two years and 78 percent put the weight back on within five years.
A third of all patients had fluctuating weight, signifying many battles were lost and won before any kind of victory could be achieved.
“Losing 5 to 10 percent of your body weight has been shown to have meaningful health benefits and is often recommended as a weight loss target,” said Fildes. “These findings highlight how difficult it is for people with obesity to achieve and maintain even small amounts of weight loss.”
Earlier this year, researchers published a paper arguing that when the body gets accustomed to a certain weight, exercise and calorie restrictions send it into survival mode. This biological underpinning, evolved to prevent starvation, must be overridden with other methods.
A Call for a Better Weight Loss Approach
The NIHR study concludes that current obesity treatments are failing to achieve sustained weight loss for the majority of obese patients.
When analyzing patients, the NIHR specifically excluded patients who underwent bariatric bypass surgery, an invasive method that’s shown to help in severely obese patients.
Martin Gulliford, the NIHR study’s senior author and professor of health and social care research at King's College London, says the data shows diet and exercise alone aren’t getting the needed results.
“Current strategies to tackle obesity, which mainly focus on cutting calories and boosting physical activity, are failing to help the majority of obese patients to shed weight and maintain that weight loss,” he said. “The greatest opportunity for stemming the current obesity epidemic is in wider-reaching public health policies to prevent obesity in the population.”