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Weight Loss: What's Unseen is Dangerously Undervalued

In the end, shedding a few pounds may not make you look or feel like a runway model. But it will help you live a longer and healthier life. That's some serious validation. Maybe we can even work to make it the new skinny.
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Who among us hasn't spent time in front of the mirror while dieting, looking for evidence that our stomachs are getting just a little flatter, our faces a little more sculpted? We may be looking in the wrong place for validation.

Of course we diet to look and feel better. But too often we're focused on what we can see, and not what we can't -- even though it's what's going on inside that matters most in the long run. Indeed, the heart of any successful diet plan is... well... the heart. And the fact of the matter is that you can vastly improve your heart's health with even modest weight loss.

First, some statistics. Heart disease is the leading killer in this country among both men and women -- claiming more than 600,000 lives each year, or just about one of every four deaths, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Yet, startlingly, only about half of women know it is their No. 1 killer.

The country has made strides against one of the key risk factors for heart disease -- smoking. The combination of a higher taxes and a sustained public health campaign has pushed the share of Americans who smoke to below 15 percent today, from 25 percent in 1997.

But the trend lines for other risk factors -- most notably obesity and diabetes -- are moving in the opposite direction. In 1997, there were no states where the obesity rate exceeded 25 percent. Today, there are only five states where the obesity rate is below 25 percent, and three where it exceeds 35 percent. Not surprisingly, over those same years, the number of new cases of diabetes and coronary heart disease nearly doubled, according to the CDC.

There are plenty of reasons for the growth in obesity and diabetes -- from ever-increasing portion size, more sedentary lifestyles, too much snacking, too much fast food, the dearth of calorie information on prepared foods, and so on. But the real shame in all this is that people don't need to go on a starvation diet or shed reality-TV-series amounts of weight to get heart healthy. The changes needed to make big improvements in are, in fact, relatively small.

The National Heart Lung and Blood Institute says losing "just 5-10 percent of your current weight over six months will lower your risk for heart disease and other conditions." It also notes, "maintaining a modest weight loss over a longer period of time is better than losing a lot of weight and regaining it."

The benefits from modest weight loss are long lasting even without maintaining a precise number on the scale. Researchers at the Washington University School of Medicine found that people who lost 10 percent of their body weight showed improvements on four key measures of heart and vascular health. Two years later, those benefits were still evident, even though many of the subjects had gained some of their weight back.

So why are we so often yearning to lose weight, but losing the battle of the heart?

I suspect it's because many people think, "I just want to be thin." The importance of looks, rather than health, gets reinforced in countless ways. Perhaps we're overlooking a critical goal and in doing so have not properly internalized a critical reward, disrupting the feedback loop necessary to prompt lasting habitual change. In other words, perhaps by not understanding the stakes, we're choosing the wrong battle. As Charles Duhigg masterfully spells out in The Power of Habits, there is no easy fix. But, shifting the mental framework within which we view weight loss, could be the key to changing unhealthy eating habits.

Celebrities affected by heart disease are already shifting, becoming far less silent about the "silent killer" often donning red dresses to help raise broad consumer awareness. The most important advocates of all may be doctors who can and should lead by example (an estimated 40% of doctors are overweight) and be strong voices in explaining the connection between weight and heart ailments, and the benefits of modest weight loss.

In the end, shedding a few pounds may not make you look or feel like a runway model. But it will help you live a longer and healthier life. That's some serious validation. Maybe we can even work to make what is unseen and dangerously undervalued, the new skinny.