How Weight Impacts Heart Health   

How Weight Impacts Heart Health

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Cardiovascular diseases, such as heart attack, stroke and aneurysm, are a leading cause of death in the United States. While there are several factors that can contribute to poor cardiovascular health, one factor—weight—is something that most of us can try to control.

Hackensack Meridian Health cardiologist Lucy M. Safi, D.O., FACC, FASE, explains why being overweight or obese is bad for the heart.

“When people are overweight, it is usually associated with other risk factors like high cholesterol, diabetes or obstructive sleep apnea. All of those diseases stress the heart through different pathways,” says Dr. Safi.

Risk 1: High Cholesterol

“High cholesterol will lead to atherosclerosis, or a buildup of fatty plaque inside the vessels in your body—not just the ones in your heart, but also throughout your entire cardiovascular system,” Dr. Safi says.

Blocked blood vessels mean that oxygen and nutrients cannot be delivered to muscles and organs. Blockages in the heart’s blood vessels—the coronary arteries—are especially dangerous. When the heart muscle itself can’t get enough oxygen, it is ischemic, which may lead to a myocardial infarction, or heart attack.

Risk 2: Diabetes

People with type 2 diabetes have insulin resistance. Normally, the body (specifically, the pancreas) produces insulin to make the sugars in food available to the body’s cells to use as energy. When the amount of insulin produced by the body drops, or is no longer sufficient to metabolize food sugars, the level of glucose in the blood rises and it can’t be used as energy. This can affect the heart muscle as well as other systems in the body.

“Being diabetic and obese/overweight can affect the entire cardiovascular system, leading to higher risk of cardiovascular heart disease,” Dr. Safi says. “Obesity can increase the inflammation in your body leading to elevated levels of glucose and cholesterol.”

Risk 3: Obstructive Sleep Apnea

“Obstructive sleep apnea is a disease process that occurs when you are overweight, and the soft tissue of your neck obstructs your airway when you sleep,” Dr. Safi explains. “This decreases the available oxygen levels in your body and stresses your heart along with other organ systems of your body.”

Obese patients who snore, awake in the morning feeling unrefreshed, or have daytime sleepiness may have sleep apnea. Even though individual episodes may not be dangerous in themselves, the repeated loss of oxygen can be cumulative and harmful.

Maintaining a Healthy Weight

The good news is that maintaining a healthy weight can reduce the likelihood of developing these risk factors—and in some people, losing weight can reverse them. Dr. Safi says the main way to avoid these diseases and protect the heart is to take control of one’s diet and exercise.

“It takes both a heart-healthy diet and heart-healthy habits such as exercise and no smoking to minimize your risk for developing cardiovascular disease,” she says.

For example:

  • Follow a low-fat, low-cholesterol diet that is full of green leafy vegetables, grains, oats, and fatty fish such as salmon or trout.
  • Include cardiovascular exercise on a weekly basis. The American Heart Association recommends 150 minutes of moderate intensity exercise a week, which can be divided into the number of days that are available to you. Dr. Safi says an alternative is to do 75 minutes of vigorous intensity exercise over a week span. “It’s more than just walking your dog; a brisk walk where you get your heart rate up is considered moderate intensity exercise,” she says.

“You really have to make a conscious effort to exercise and follow a low-fat, low-cholesterol diet, especially one that is low in saturated fat and trans saturated fats” Dr. Safi says. “Reading food labels is helpful.”

Next Steps & Resources

The material provided through HealthU is intended to be used as general information only and should not replace the advice of your physician. Always consult your physician for individual care.


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