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NHLBI Obesity Education Initiative Expert Panel on the Identification, Evaluation, and Treatment of Obesity in Adults (US). Clinical Guidelines on the Identification, Evaluation, and Treatment of Overweight and Obesity in Adults: The Evidence Report. Bethesda (MD): National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute; 1998 Sep.

Cover of Clinical Guidelines on the Identification, Evaluation, and Treatment of Overweight and Obesity in Adults

Clinical Guidelines on the Identification, Evaluation, and Treatment of Overweight and Obesity in Adults: The Evidence Report.

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Executive Summary


An estimated 97 million adults in the United States are overweight or obese, a condition that substantially raises their risk of morbidity from hypertension, dyslipidemia, type 2 diabetes, coronary heart disease, stroke, gallbladder disease, osteoarthritis, sleep apnea and respiratory problems, and endometrial, breast, prostate, and colon cancers. Higher body weights are also associated with increases in all-cause mortality. Obese individuals may also suffer from social stigmatization and discrimination. As a major contributor to preventive death in the United States today, overweight and obesity pose a major public health challenge.

Overweight is here defined as a body mass index (BMI) of 25 to 29.9 kg/m2 and obesity as a BMI of ≥ 30 kg/m2. However, overweight and obesity are not mutually exclusive, since obese persons are also overweight. A BMI of 30 is about 30 lb overweight and equivalent to 221 lb in a 6'0" person and to 186 lb in one 5'6". The number of overweight and obese men and women has risen since 1960; in the last decade the percentage of people in these categories has increased to 54.9 percent of adults age 20 years or older. Overweight and obesity are especially evident in some minority groups, as well as in those with lower incomes and less education.

Obesity is a complex multifactorial chronic disease that develops from an interaction of genotype and the environment. Our understanding of how and why obesity develops is incomplete, but involves the integration of social, behavioral, cultural, physiological, metabolic and genetic factors.

While there is agreement about the health risks of overweight and obesity, there is less agreement about their management. Some have argued against treating obesity because of the difficulty in maintaining long-term weight loss and of potentially negative consequences of the frequently seen pattern of weight cycling in obese subjects. Others argue that the potential hazards of treatment do not outweigh the known hazards of being obese. The intent of these guidelines is to provide evidence for the effects of treatment on overweight and obesity. The guidelines focus on the role of the primary care practitioner in treating overweight and obesity.

Evidence-Based Guidelines

To evaluate published information and to determine the most appropriate treatment strategies that would constitute evidence-based clinical guidelines on overweight and obesity for physicians and associated health professionals in clinical practice, health care policy makers, and clinical investigators, the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute's Obesity Education Initiative in cooperation with the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases convened the Expert Panel on the Identification, Evaluation, and Treatment of Overweight and Obesity in Adults in May 1995. The guidelines are based on a systematic review of the published scientific literature found in MEDLINE from January 1980 to September 1997 of topics identified by the panel as key to extrapolating the data related to the obesity evidence model. Evidence from approximately 394 randomized controlled trials (RCTs) was considered by the panel.

The panel is comprised of 24 members, 8 ex-officio members, and a methodologist consultant. Areas of expertise contributed to by panel members included primary care, epidemiology, clinical nutrition, exercise physiology, psychology, physiology, and pulmonary disease. There were five meetings of the full panel and two additional meetings of the executive committee comprised of the panel chair and four panel members.

The San Antonio Cochrane Center assisted the panel in the literature abstraction and in organizing the data into appropriate evidence tables. The center pretested and used a standardized 25-page form or “Critical Review Status Sheet” for the literature abstraction. Ultimately, 236 RCT articles were abstracted and the data were then compiled into individual evidence tables developed for each RCT. The data from these RCTs served as the basis for many of the recommendations contained in the guidelines.

The panel determined the criteria for deciding on the appropriateness of an article. At a minimum, studies had to have a time frame from start to finish of at least 4 months. The only exceptions were a few 3-month studies related to dietary therapy and pharmacotherapy. To consider the question of long-term maintenance, studies with outcome data provided at approximately 1 year or longer were examined. Excluded were studies in which self-reported weights by subjects were the only indicators used to measure weight loss. No exclusions of studies were made by study size. The panel weighed the evidence based on a thorough examination of the threshold or magnitude of the treatment effect. Each evidence statement (other than those with no available evidence) and each recommendation is categorized by a level of evidence which ranges from A to D. Table ES-1 summarizes the categories of evidence by their source and provides a definition for each category.

Table ES-1. Evidence Categories.

Table ES-1

Evidence Categories.

  • Who is at Risk? All overweight and obese adults (age 18 years of age or older) with a BMI of ≥25 are considered at risk for developing associated morbidities or diseases such as hypertension, high blood cholesteral, type 2 diabetes, coronary heart disease, and other diseases. Individuals with a BMI of 25 to 29.9 are considered overweight, while individuals with a BMI ≥30 are considered obese. Treatment of overweight is recommended only when patients have two or more risk factors or a high waist circumference. It should focus on altering dietary and physical activity patterns to prevent development of obesity and to produce moderate weight loss. Treatment of obesity should focus on producing substantial weight loss over a prolonged period. The presence of comorbidities in overweight and obese patients should be considered when deciding on treatment options.
  • Why Treat Overweight and Obesity? Obesity is clearly associated with increased morbidity and mortality. There is strong evidence that weight loss in overweight and obese individuals reduces risk factors for diabetes and cardiovascular disease (CVD). Strong evidence exists that weight loss reduces blood pressure in both overweight hypertensive and nonhypertensive individuals; reduces serum triglycerides and increases high-density lipoprotein (HDL)-cholesterol; and generally produces some reduction in total serum cholesterol and low-density lipoprotein (LDL)-cholesterol. Weight loss reduces blood glucose levels in overweight and obese persons without diabetes; and weight loss also reduces blood glucose levels and HbA1c in some patients with type 2 diabetes. Although there have been no prospective trials to show changes in mortality with weight loss in obese patients, reductions in risk factors would suggest that development of type 2 diabetes and CVD would be reduced with weight loss.
  • What Treatments Are Effective? A variety of effective options exist for the management of overweight and obese patients, including dietary therapy approaches such as low-calorie diets and lower-fat diets; altering physical activity patterns; behavior therapy techniques; pharmacotherapy* ; surgery; and combinations of these techniques.

Clinical Guidelines

Treatment of the overweight or obese patient is a two-step process: assessment and treatment management. Assessment requires determination of the degree of overweight and overall risk status. Management includes both reducing excess body weight and instituting other measures to control accompanying risk factors.

Assessment: When assessing a patient for risk status and as a candidate for weight loss therapy, consider the patient's BMI, waist circumference, and overall risk status. Consideration also needs to be given to the patient's motivation to lose weight.

  • Body Mass Index. The BMI, which describes relative weight for height, is significantly correlated with total body fat content. The BMI should be used to assess overweight and obesity and to monitor changes in body weight. In addition, measurements of body weight alone can be used to determine efficacy of weight loss therapy. BMI is calculated as weight (kg)/height squared (m2). To estimate BMI using pounds and inches, use: [weight (pounds)/height (inches)2] × 703. Weight classifications by BMI, selected for use in this report, are shown in Table ES-2. A conversion table of heights and weights resulting in selected BMI units is provided in Table ES-3.
  • Waist Circumference. The presence of excess fat in the abdomen out of proportion to total body fat is an independent predictor of risk factors and morbidity. Waist circumference is positively correlated with abdominal fat content. It provides a clinically acceptable measurement for assessing a patient's abdominal fat content before and during weight loss treatment. The sex-specific cutoffs noted on the next page can be used to identify increased relative risk for the development of obesity-associated risk factors in most adults with a BMI of 25 to 34.9 kg/m2:
    These waist circumference cutpoints lose their incremental predictive power in patients with a BMI ≥ 35 kg/m2 because these patients will exceed the cutpoints noted above. Table ES-4adds the disease risk of increased abdominal fat to the disease risk of BMI. These categories denote relative risk, not absolute risk; that is, relative to risk at normal weight. They should not be equated with absolute risk, which is determined by a summation of risk factors. They relate to the need to institute weight loss therapy and do not directly define the required intensity of modification of risk factors associated with obesity.
  • Risk Status. Assessment of a patient's absolute risk status requires examination for the presence of:
    Disease conditions: established coronary heart disease (CHD), other atherosclerotic diseases, type 2 diabetes, and sleep apnea; patients with these conditions are classified as being at very high risk for disease complications and mortality.
    Other obesity-associated diseases: gynecological abnormalities, osteoarthritis, gallstones and their complications, and stress incontinence.
    Cardiovascular risk factors: cigarette smoking, hypertension (systolic blood pressure ≥ 140 mm Hg or diastolic blood pressure ≥ 90 mm Hg, or the patient is taking antihypertensive agents), high-risk LDL-cholesterol (≥ 160 mg/dL), low HDL-cholesterol (< 35 mg/dL), impaired fasting glucose (fasting plasma glucose of 110 to 125 mg/dL), family history of premature CHD (definite myocardial infarction or sudden death at or before 55 years of age in father or other male first-degree relative, or at or before 65 years of age in mother or other female first-degree relative), and age (men ≥ 45 years and women ≥ 55 years or postmenopausal). Patients can be classified as being at high absolute risk if they have three of the aforementioned risk factors. Patients at high absolute risk usually require clinical management of risk factors to reduce risk.
    Patients who are overweight or obese often have other cardiovascular risk factors. Methods for estimating absolute risk status for developing cardiovascular disease based on these risk factors are described in detail in the National Cholesterol Education Program's Second Report of the Expert Panel on the Detection, Evaluation, and Treatment of High Blood Cholesterol in Adults (NCEP's ATP II) and the Sixth Report of the Joint National Committee on Prevention, Detection, Evaluation, and Treatment of High Blood Pressure (JNC VI). The intensity of intervention for cholesterol disorders or hypertension is adjusted according to the absolute risk status estimated from multiple risk correlates. These include both the risk factors listed above and evidence of end-organ damage present in hypertensive patients. Approaches to therapy for cholesterol disorders and hypertension are described in ATP II and JNC VI, respectively. In overweight patients, control of cardiovascular risk factors deserves equal emphasis as weight reduction therapy. Reduction of risk factors will reduce the risk for cardiovascular disease whether or not efforts at weight loss are successful.
    Other risk factors: physical inactivity and high serum triglycerides (> 200 mg/dL). When these factors are present, patients can be considered to have incremental absolute risk above that estimated from the preceding risk factors. Quantitative risk contribution is not available for these risk factors, but their presence heightens the need for weight reduction in obese persons.
  • Patient Motivation. When assessing the patient's motivation to enter weight loss therapy, the following factors should be evaluated: reasons and motivation for weight reduction; previous history of successful and unsuccessful weight loss attempts; family, friends, and work-site support; the patient's understanding of the causes of obesity and how obesity contributes to several diseases; attitude toward physical activity; capacity to engage in physical activity; time availability for weight loss intervention; and financial considerations. In addition to considering these issues, the health care practitioner needs to heighten a patient's motivation for weight loss and prepare the patient for treatment. This can be done by enumerating the dangers accompanying persistent obesity and by describing the strategy for clinically assisted weight reduction. Reviewing the patients' past attempts at weight loss and explaining how the new treatment plan will be different can encourage patients and provide hope for successful weight loss.
Table ES-2. Classification of Overweight and Obesity by BMI.

Table ES-2

Classification of Overweight and Obesity by BMI.

Table ES-3. Selected BMI Units Categorized by Inches (CM)and pounds (KG).

Table ES-3

Selected BMI Units Categorized by Inches (CM)and pounds (KG).

Table ES-4. Classification of Overweight and Obesity by BMI, Waist Circumference and Associated Disease Risk*.

Table ES-4

Classification of Overweight and Obesity by BMI, Waist Circumference and Associated Disease Risk*.

High Risk

Men > 102 cm ( > 40 in)

Women > 88 cm ( > 35 in)

Evaluation and Treatment: The general goals of weight loss and management are: (1) at a minimum, to prevent further weight gain; (2) to reduce body weight; and (3) to maintain a lower body weight over the long term. The overall strategy for the evaluation and treatment of overweight and obese patients is presented in the Treatment Algorithm on the next page. This algorithm applies only to the assessment for overweight and obesity and subsequent decisions based on that assessment. It does not include any initial overall assessment for cardiovascular risk factors or diseases that are indicated.

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Treatment Algorithm*

  • Goals of Weight Loss and Management.
    The initial goal of weight loss therapy is to reduce body weight by approximately 10 percent from baseline. If this goal is achieved, further weight loss can be attempted, if indicated through further evaluation.
    A reasonable time line for a 10 percent reduction in body weight is 6 months of therapy. For overweight patients with BMIs in the typical range of 27 to 35, a decrease of 300 to 500 kcal/day will result in weight losses of about ½ to 1 lb/week and a 10 percent loss in 6 months. For more severely obese patients with BMIs > 35, deficits of up to 500 to 1,000 kcal/day will lead to weight losses of about 1 to 2 lb/week and a 10 percent weight loss in 6 months. Weight loss at the rate of 1 to 2 lb/week (calorie deficit of 500 to 1,000 kcal/day) commonly occurs for up to 6 months. After 6 months, the rate of weight loss usually declines and weight plateaus because of a lesser energy expenditure at the lower weight.
    Experience reveals that lost weight usually will be regained unless a weight maintenance program consisting of dietary therapy, physical activity, and behavior therapy is continued indefinitely.
    After 6 months of weight loss treatment, efforts to maintain weight loss should be put in place. If more weight loss is needed, another attempt at weight reduction can be made. This will require further adjustment of the diet and physical activity prescriptions.
    For patients unable to achieve significant weight reduction, prevention of further weight gain is an important goal; such patients may also need to participate in a weight management program.
  • Strategies for Weight Loss and Weight Maintenance.
    Dietary Therapy: A diet that is individually planned and takes into account the patient's overweight status in order to help create a deficit of 500 to 1,000 kcal/day should be an integral part of any weight loss program. A patient may choose a diet of 1,000 to 1,200 kcal/day for women and 1,200 to 1,500 kcal/day for men. Depending on the patient's risk status, the low-calorie diet (LCD) recommended should be consistent with the NCEP's Step I or Step II Diet (see page 74 of the guidelines). Besides decreasing saturated fat, total fats should be 30 percent or less of total calories. Reducing the percentage of dietary fat alone will not produce weight loss unless total calories are also reduced. Isocaloric replacement of fat with carbohydrates will reduce the percentage of calories from fat but will not cause weight loss. Reducing dietary fat, along with reducing dietary carbohydrates, usually will be needed to produce the caloric deficit needed for an acceptable weight loss. When fat intake is reduced, priority should be given to reducing saturated fat to enhance lowering of LDL-cholesterol levels. Frequent contacts with the practitioner during dietary therapy help to promote weight loss and weight maintenance at a lower weight.
    Physical Activity: An increase in physical activity is an important component of weight loss therapy, although it will not lead to substantially greater weight loss over 6 months. Most weight loss occurs because of decreased caloric intake. Sustained physical activity is most helpful in the prevention of weight regain. In addition, it has a benefit in reducing cardiovascular and diabetes risks beyond that produced by weight reduction alone. For most obese patients, exercise should be initiated slowly, and the intensity should be increased gradually. The exercise can be done all at one time or intermittently over the day. Initial activities may be walking or swimming at a slow pace. The patient can start by walking 30 minutes for 3 days a week and can build to 45 minutes of more intense walking at least 5 days a week. With this regimen, an additional expenditure of 100 to 200 calories per day can be achieved. All adults should set a long-term goal to accumulate at least 30 minutes or more of moderate-intensity physical activity on most, and preferably all, days of the week. This regimen can be adapted to other forms of physical activity, but walking is particularly attractive because of its safety and accessibility. Patients should be encouraged to increase “every day” activities such as taking the stairs instead of the elevator. With time, depending on progress and functional capacity, the patient may engage in more strenuous activities. Competitive sports, such as tennis and volleyball, can provide an enjoyable form of exercise for many, but care must be taken to avoid injury. Reducing sedentary time is another strategy to increase activity by undertaking frequent, less strenuous activities.
    Behavior Therapy: Strategies, based on learning principles such as reinforcement, that provide tools for overcoming barriers to compliance with dietary therapy and/or increased physical activity are helpful in achieving weight loss and weight maintenance. Specific strategies include self-monitoring of both eating habits and physical activity, stress management, stimulus control, problem solving, contingency management, cognitive restructuring, and social support.
    Combined Therapy: A combined intervention of behavior therapy, an LCD, and increased physical activity provides the most successful therapy for weight loss and weight maintenance. This type of intervention should be maintained for at least 6 months before considering pharmacotherapy.
    Pharmacotherapy: In carefully selected patients, appropriate drugs can augment LCDs, physical activity, and behavior therapy in weight loss. Weight loss drugs that have been approved by the FDA for long-term use can be useful adjuncts to dietary therapy and physical activity for some patients with a BMI of ≥ 30 with no concomitant risk factors or diseases, and for patients with a BMI of ≥ 27 with concomitant risk factors or diseases. The risk factors and diseases considered important enough to warrant pharmacotherapy at a BMI of 27 to 29.9 are hypertension, dyslipidemia, CHD, type 2 diabetes, and sleep apnea. Continual assessment by the physician of drug therapy for efficacy and safety is necessary.
    At the present time, sibutramine is available for long-term use. (Note: FDA approval of orlistat is pending a resolution of labeling issues and results of Phase III trials.) It enhances weight loss modestly and can help facilitate weight loss maintenance. Potential side effects with drugs, nonetheless, must be kept in mind. With sibutramine, increases in blood pressure and heart rate may occur. Sibutramine should not be used in patients with a history of hypertension, CHD, congestive heart failure, arrhythmias, or history of stroke. With orlistat, fat soluble vitamins may require replacement because of partial malabsorption. All patients should be carefully monitored for these side effects.
    Weight Loss Surgery: Weight loss surgery is one option for weight reduction in a limited number of patients with clinically severe obesity, i.e., BMIs ≥ 40 or ≥ 35 with comorbid conditions. Weight loss surgery should be reserved for patients in whom efforts at medical therapy have failed and who are suffering from the complications of extreme obesity. Gastrointestinal surgery (gastric restriction [vertical gastric banding] or gastric bypass [Roux-en Y]) is an intervention weight loss option for motivated subjects with acceptable operative risks. An integrated program must be in place to provide guidance on diet, physical activity, and behavioral and social support both prior to and after the surgery.
  • Adapt Weight Loss Programs To Meet the Needs of Diverse Patients. Standard treatment approaches for overweight and obesity must be tailored to the needs of various patients or patient groups. Large individual variation exists within any social or cultural group; furthermore, substantial overlap among subcultures occurs within the larger society. There is, therefore, no “cookbook” or standardized set of rules to optimize weight reduction with a given type of patient. However, to be more culturally sensitive and to incorporate patient characteristics in obesity treatment programs: consider and adapt the setting and staffing for the program; consider how the obesity treatment program integrates into other aspects of patient health care and self care; and expect and allow for program modifications based on patient responses and preferences.
    The issues of weight reduction after age 65 involve such questions as: does weight loss reduce risk factors in older adults; are there risks associated with obesity treatment that are unique to older adults; and does weight reduction prolong the lives of older adults? Although there is less certainty about the importance of treating overweight at older ages than at younger ages, a clinical decision to forgo obesity treatment in older adults should be guided by an evaluation of the potential benefit of weight reduction and the reduction of risk for future cardiovascular events.
    In the obese patient who smokes, smoking cessation is a major goal of risk factor management. Many well-documented health benefits accompany smoking cessation, but a major obstacle to cessation has been the attendant weight gain observed in about 80 percent of quitters. This weight gain averages 4.5 to 7 lb, but in 13 percent of women and 10 percent of men, weight gain exceeds 28 lb. Weight gain that accompanies smoking cessation has been quite resistant to most dietary, behavioral, or physical activity interventions.
    The weight gained with smoking cessation is less likely to produce negative health consequences than would continued smoking. For this reason, smoking cessation should be strongly advocated regardless of baseline weight. Prevention of weight gain through diet and physical activity should be stressed. For practical reasons, it may be prudent to avoid initiating smoking cessation and weight loss therapy simultaneously. If weight gain ensues after smoking cessation, it should be managed vigorously according to the guidelines outlined in this report. Although short-term weight gain is a common side effect of smoking cessation, this gain does not rule out the possibility of long-term weight control.



As of September 1997, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) requested the voluntary withdrawal from the market of dexfenfluramine and fenfluramine due to a reported association between valvular heart disease and the use of dexfenfluramine or fenfluramine alone or combined with phentermine. The use of these drugs for weight reduction, therefore, is not recommended in this report. Sibutramine is approved by FDA for long-term use. It has limited but definite effects on weight loss and can facilitate weight loss maintenance (Note: FDA approval for orlistat is pending a resolution of labeling issues and results of Phase III trials.)


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