Modest weight loss across a whole nation can help cut the number of deaths from type 2 diabetes and heart disease, a new unique study has revealed.
A team of international researchers found that a population-wide weight loss of 5kg per head over five years led to a 50% drop in type 2 diabetes mortality and a one third reduction in cardiovascular death.
The findings, published online in the British Medical Journal, were made by Dr Manuel Franco, associate professor at the University of Alcala in Madrid, and colleagues from Spain, Cuba and the US. The team conducted a natural experiment in Cuba, which experienced a severe economic crisis between 1991 and 1995 following the collapse of the Soviet Union.
The researchers studied the association between population-wide body changes in energy intake and physical activity caused by food and fuel shortages and incidence and prevalence of type 2 diabetes, as well as death rates from diabetes, heart disease, cancer and all-causes between 1980 and 2010.
They found that incidence of diabetes declined from 1991 to 1995, when population-wide body changes saw the average Cuban lose 5.5kg in body weight.
In 1996 – five years after the start of the weight loss period – deaths from diabetes suddenly started to fall, while deaths from cardiovascular disease, which had been slowly falling since 1980, also went into sudden free fall that year.
However, these descending trends came to a halt in the late 1990s during the country’s subsequent economic recovery, leading to a population-wide decrease in levels of physical activity, an increase in weight, and rising incidence of diabetes, heart disease and stroke.
Diabetes mortality rates, which decreased by 50% immediately after the crisis, returned to pre-crisis levels in 2002 and increased by a further 49% between 2002 and 2010.
The researchers concluded that the “Cuban experience” from 1980 to 2010 shows that within a relatively short period, modest weight loss in the whole population can have a profound effect on the overall burden of diabetes and deaths from heart disease .
“These data are a notable illustration of the potential health benefits of reversing the global obesity epidemic.”

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