The small weight gain that can be so dangerous

Small increases in weight are dangerous for your heart

It’s easy to put on half a stone when you’re away on holiday, or to have allowed the pounds to inch-on around your waist, thighs and bottom, over the last couple of years. But if you're otherwise fit and healthy you may think you’re not putting your health in any great danger.

But new research from the University of Texas Southwestern found that even a small increase in weight, such as 6lbs, can be just as dangerous for your health as being fat.  This is because of the pressure it puts on your heart.

How much weight gain is bad for your health?

Intriguingly, scientists found that heart health wasn’t majorly affected by how much a person weighed at the beginning of the study, whether they were overweight, underweight or normal weight, - what made the difference was fluctuations in their weight.  

The researchers followed 1,262 people, with an average age of 44, over seven years, monitoring their body fat and heart health. All were free from heart disease and other conditions that put them at high risk for heart disease.

  • Those who gained 5% extra body weight suffered severe heart inflammation affecting the strength of the heart muscle, and thickening and enlargement of the left ventricle, which is a marker of future heart failure.
  • This was the same as a 130lb (9st 3lbs) woman gaining 6.5lbs, or a 150lb (10st 7lb) man adding 7.5lbs 
  • More at risk of subtle decreases in their hearts' pumping ability.

How to protect your heart

Dr Ian Neeland, a cardiologist and assistant professor of medicine, pointed out that any weight gain may lead to harmful changes in the heart.

  • Protect your heart by working towards weight loss if you’re overweight
  • If you find weight loss difficult, then maintaining a stable weight can help

Find out where you have body fat

At the beginning of the heart study, each person taking part was given an MRI scan of their heart, and underwent multiple body fat measurements. This was repeated seven years later.

Many of us have an idea where we’re putting on a little weight, but it’s hard to get a clear picture yourself, and there’s no way of knowing what sort of fat – good or bad – that you’re laying down.

Many clinics offer MRI scans, these can be uncomfortable, as you have to lie sill in an enclosed space.

A DEXA scan (dual energy X-ray absorptiomitry) a safe alternative, with far lower levels of radiation exposure than CT or X-rays, and is quick, accurate, painless and non-invasive.

A DEXA scanner is used to measure bone density, but when equipped with ‘Advanced Body Composition’ capabilities will provide an accurate indication of total fat in the trunk region, which is an important diagnostic marker of health in its own right. When fat accumulates here, doctors know this is a risk factor for diabetes, heart disease and cancer.

Furthermore, if the DEXA machine has a CoreScan option, the instrumentation can identify whether this fat is stored around vital internal organs such as the liver, pancreas and intestines. Once you know your risk factors, you can discuss how to reduce your risk with lifestyle changes or medications.

How do I get a body scan?

Once you’ve had a DEXA scan, you will have a better understanding of your health, and peace of mind.

Your doctor can refer you for a DEXA scan, you can also self-refer yourself. Professor David Reid is one of the UK’s leading expert on DEXA (Dual-energy X-ray absorptiometry) and can provide you with a full 'Body Composition Scan'.


Abnormal, uncontrolled cell division resulting in a malignant tumour that may invade surrounding tissues or spread to distant parts of the body. Full medical glossary
The abbreviation for computed tomography, a scan that generates a series of cross-sectional x-ray images Full medical glossary
A disorder caused by insufficient or absent production of the hormone insulin by the pancreas, or because the tissues are resistant to the effects. Full medical glossary
One of the three main food constituents (with carbohydrate and protein), and the main form in which energy is stored in the body. Full medical glossary
A viral infection affecting the respiratory system. Full medical glossary
Failure of the heart to pump adequately. Full medical glossary
The body’s response to injury. Full medical glossary
The section of gut, or gastrointestinal tract, from the stomach to the anus. Full medical glossary
The major part of the digestive tract. Full medical glossary
A large abdominal organ that has many important roles including the production of bile and clotting factors, detoxification, and the metabolism of proteins, carbohydrates and fats. Full medical glossary
An abbreviation for magnetic resonance imaging, a technique for imaging the body that uses electromagnetic waves and a strong magnetic field. Full medical glossary
Tissue made up of cells that can contract to bring about movement. Full medical glossary
Any test or technique that does not involve penetration of the skin. The term 'non-invasive' may also describe tumours that do not invade surrounding tissues. Full medical glossary
A gland behind the stomach that produces digestive enzymes and the hormones insulin and glucagon, which together regulate glucose levels in the blood. Full medical glossary
A glandular organ that secretes digestive enzymes and hormones. Full medical glossary
Energy in the form of waves or particles, including radio waves, X-rays and gamma rays. Full medical glossary
Either of the two lower chambers of the heart, or any of the four cavities within the brain. Full medical glossary
A type of electromagnetic radiation used to produce images of the body. Full medical glossary