It has been estimated  that more than 50% of the U.S. population is overweight (body mass index (BMI)>25.0 kg/m2), with ~20% designated as being obese (BMI>30 kg/m2). Given the importance  of excess adiposity in increasing risk of cardiovascular disease (CVD) and the increase in the prevalence of overweight/obesity, it is essential that considerable thought be given as to how to address this dilemma. Patients with CVD tend to be insulin resistant [3, 4], and insulin resistance (and the compensatory hyperinsulinemia associated with insulin resistance) are independent predictors of CVD [5-8]. Overweight/obese individuals tend to be insulin resistant and become more insulin sensitive with weight loss . Thus, it can be postulated that a major contributor to the association between obesity and CVD is insulin resistance and that the risk of CVD will decrease when overweight/obese individuals lose weight. As straightforward as this formulation seems to be, the situation is not quite that simple and it ignores some important issues that must be addressed.Obesity Does Not Equal Insulin Resistance
Not all overweight/obese individuals are insulin resistant and at increased risk for the associated adverse consequences. For example, studies in Pima Indians and individuals of European ancestry demonstrated that physical fitness was as powerful a modulator of insulin action as body weight, with each variable accounting for ~25% of the differences in insulin-mediated glucose disposal in nondiabetic individuals . Furthermore, the report  from the European Group for the Study of Insulin Resistance (based on the analysis of specific measures of insulin resistance in 1146 nondiabetic, normotensive volunteers) showed that only ~25% of the obese individuals were classified as being insulin resistant. On the other hand, the fact that not all overweight/obese individuals are insulin resistant should not obscure the relationship between excess adiposity and insulin sensitivity: in general, the more obese an individual, the more likely they are to be insulin resistant. However, this relationship is far from perfect, and, as seen in Figure 1, it appears that differences in BMI in apparently healthy, nondiabetic volunteers account for ~25% of the variability in insulin-mediated glucose uptake as assessed by the insulin suppression test . Furthermore, this estimate does not take into consideration the fact that overweight individuals are often sedentary. Consequently, and similar to most studies examining the relationship between obesity and insulin action, the adverse impact of obesity on insulin resistance seen in Figure 1 is, if anything, exaggerated.
In summary: 1) not all obese individuals are insulin resistant, nor are all insulin resistant individuals obese; 2) obesity is a modulator of insulin resistance, it is not a consequence; and 3) the adverse effect of insulin resistance on insulin-mediated glucose disposal is almost certainly exaggerated because the concomitant effect of decreased physical fitness in obese subjects is almost never taken into consideration.Weight Loss Is Not More Difficult in Obese, Insulin Resistant/Hyperinsulinemic Persons
There seems to be a general perception that the compensatory hyperinsulinemia that prevents frank hyperglycemia from developing in insulin resistant individuals makes it extremely difficult for obese individuals to lose weight. As appealing as this notion seems to be, it is not consistent with available information. For example, there are population-based prospective studies in different ethnic groups showing that baseline insulin resistance and/or hyperinsulinemia either have no effect on weight gain over time or actually predict that this is less likely to occur [13-15]. Furthermore, results of two recent studies have shown that the ability to lose weight in response to calorie-restricted diets is unaffected by differences in insulin resistance and/or hyperinsulinemia: insulin resistant/hyperinsulinemic obese individuals lose weight as effectively (or ineffectively) as equally overweight individuals who are insulin sensitive [16, 17]. An example of this is seen in Figure 2, which demonstrates the lack of any relationship between the amount of weight lost over a 2-month period of calorie restriction and the daylong plasma insulin concentrations to a test meal prior to starting the diet.
Since obese individuals tend to be insulin resistant, glucose intolerant, hyperinsulinemic, and dyslipidemic [9, 12, 16-19], it is not surprising that they are more likely to develop CVD. However, the fact that not all obese individuals are insulin resistant has important implications concerning the clinical impact of the current epidemic of obesity. In the first place, it seems likely that the adverse metabolic consequences associated with being insulin resistant will be confined to a significant extent to those obese individuals who are also insulin resistant. Insulin-mediated glucose disposal can be quantified in apparently healthy, equally obese volunteers, and this data can be used to classify these individuals as being either insulin sensitive (IS) or insulin resistant (IR). This is an operational definition based on evidence from prospective studies that the most insulin resistant third of an apparently healthy population is at increased risk to develop CVD, whereas the most insulin sensitive third is not [5, 6]. When CVD risk factors are compared in IR and IS subgroups of moderately obese individuals stratified in this manner [12, 19, 20], daylong plasma glucose, insulin, and free fatty acid concentrations are significantly higher in IR as compared to IS obese individuals. In addition, the IR group has higher plasma triglyceride (TG) and lower high-density lipoprotein cholesterol HDL cholesterol concentrations. Furthermore, elevated C-reactive protein concentrations appear to occur primarily in moderately obese individuals who are also insulin resistant. Perhaps the most dramatic example of the metabolic variability in equally obese individuals comes from a study of 211 individuals, in which the prevalence of impaired glucose tolerance (IGT) was 1% in the most insulin sensitive third, as compared to 46% in the most insulin resistant third of the population . These relationships are summarized in Figure 3.How to Identify the Overweight/Obese Individuals Who Will Benefit Most from Weight Loss?
If only a proportion of overweight/obese individuals are insulin resistant, it seems reasonable to suggest that intensive intervention strategies to overcome the untoward health-related impact of overweight/obesity should focus on those individuals who will benefit the most. In order to stratify overweight/obese individuals on the basis of their degree of insulin resistance and emphasize disease risk reduction, rather than simple weight loss, the appropriate sub-population of obese individuals must be recognized in a clinically useful manner.
The importance of identifying insulin resistant individuals for weight loss programs is supported by the results of prospective studies in apparently healthy, nondiabetic volunteers showing that the upper third in terms of insulin-mediated glucose disposal (i.e., the most insulin resistant individuals) were at significantly increased risk to develop CVD [5, 6]. Fasting plasma insulin concentration is often used as a surrogate measure of insulin resistance, but its clinical use is compromised by the lack of nationwide standardization of the measurement, and direct quantification of insulin-mediated glucose disposal is not clinically practical. However, if focus is shifted to the down-stream consequences of insulin resistance/hyperinsulinemia, the task becomes simpler. Normal weight is currently defined as a BMI<25.0 kg/m2, and it would be prudent to evaluate any person with a BMI>25.0 kg/m2 for the manifestations of insulin resistance. The simultaneous presence of a family history of type 2 diabetes, hypertension, or CVD makes it even more imperative to identify CVD risk factors in that individual.
Although there is no single test with which to identify those overweight individuals most likely to be at increased risk for CVD, considerable clinical insight can be gained by focusing on the dyslipidemia characteristic of insulin resistance: a high plasma TG and a low HDL cholesterol concentration [3, 4, 21]. Overweight individuals with a TG concentration >1.69 mmol/l (150 mg/dl) and a HDL cholesterol concentration <1.03 mmol/l (40 mg/dl) are very likely to be insulin resistant. In addition, they are also likely to have a decrease in the diameter of their low-density lipoprotein (LDL) particles  and an increase in the postprandial accumulation of TG-rich remnant lipoproteins [23, 24]. LDL particle diameter and postprandial lipemia are not routinely determined, but when the plasma TG concentration is >1.69 mmol/l (150 mg/dl), LDL particles are likely to become small and dense , and the postprandial accumulation of remnant lipoproteins accentuated [23, 24]. It is this subset of overweight/obese individuals who are at greatest risk of CVD and will have the greatest decrease in risk with weight loss. Although both a high TG and a low HDL cholesterol concentration have been identified as CVD risk factors [26, 27], their plasma concentration ratio may be even more useful in this regard. Thus, the observation  that the TG/HDL cholesterol concentration ratio is as powerful a predictor of CVD as the more conventional ratios of LDL cholesterol/HDL cholesterol or cholesterol/HDL cholesterol is supported by evidence  that the risk of ischemic heart disease is much greater when the "conventional" risk factors (i.e., high LDL cholesterol concentration, hypertension, smoking, and physical inactivity) were associated with a high TG/HDL cholesterol concentration ratio. It has also been shown that the untoward effects of these four conventional risk factors were significantly attenuated in individuals with a low TG/HDL-C ratio. Based upon these observations and a review of our database, we have proposed that a TG/HDL-C concentration (mg/dl) ratio >3.0 can be useful in identifying overweight/moderately obese individuals who are insulin resistant, to a degree that predicts increased risk of CVD . This ratio is far from perfect and is not as sensitive as would be desirable, but it is reasonably specific. Thus, an overweight/moderately obese person meeting this criterion displays the atherogenic lipoprotein phenotype characteristic of insulin resistant individuals, is highly likely to be insulin resistant, and would almost certainly benefit greatly from weight loss and increased physical activity.What are the Benefits of Weight Loss in Insulin Resistant, Overweight Individuals?
There is essentially no change in insulin sensitivity, fasting lipid and lipoprotein concentrations, daylong plasma glucose, insulin, or free fatty acid concentrations with weight loss in IS individuals [18, 19]. In contrast, a similar degree of weight loss in equally obese, IR individuals will be associated with considerable metabolic improvements. Evidence that blood pressure falls in association with weight loss was initially published in 1978 , and it has also been shown that the improvement in blood pressure following weight loss in obese adolescents was related to the associated changes in insulin sensitivity . A similar conclusion was reached in a study in adults with hypertension, in which there was a highly significant relationship between the improvement in insulin sensitivity and the fall in blood pressure .Conclusion
There is substantial evidence that insulin resistant/hyperinsulinemic individuals are at increased risk to develop CVD. Relatively simple measures can identify the subset of overweight/obese individuals who are most likely to be insulin resistant/hyperinsulinemic, and the benefit of weight loss in these individuals has been established. Although it does not solve all of the health-related problems associated with obesity, a useful starting point might be to recognize that not all obese individuals are at equal risk and that it is clinically useful to identify those at highest risk. If this is done, intense efforts at weight control can be brought to bear on those who need it the most. Given the difficulty in achieving weight loss, focus should be placed on those who have the most to gain: the insulin resistant subset of overweight individuals.
- Kuczmarski RJ, Carroll MD, Flegal KM, et al. Varying body mass index cutoff points to describe overweight prevalence among U.S. adults: NHANES III (1988 to 1994). Obes Res 1997; 5: 542-8
- Rimm EB, Stampfer MJ, Giovannucci E, et al. Body size and fat distribution as predictors of coronary heart disease among middle-aged and older US men. Am J Epidemiol 1995; 141: 1117-27.
- Reaven GM. Role of insulin resistance in human disease. Diabetes 1988; 37: 1595-607.
- Reaven GM. The insulin resistance syndrome. Curr Atheroscler Rep 2003; 5: 364-71.
- Yip J, Facchini FS and Reaven GM. Resistance to insulin-mediated glucose disposal as a predictor of cardiovascular disease. J Clin Endocrinol Metab 1998; 83: 2773-6.
- Facchini FS, Hua N, Abbasi F, et al. Insulin resistance as a predictor of age-related diseases. J Clin Endocrinol Metab 2001; 86: 3574-8.
- Després JP, Lamarche B, Mauriège P, et al. Hyperinsulinemia as an independent risk factor for ischemic heart disease. N Engl J Med 1996; 334: 952-7.
- Zavaroni I, Bonini L, Gasparini P, et al. Hyperinsulinemia in a normal population as a predictor of non-insulin-dependent diabetes mellitus, hypertension, and coronary heart disease: the Barilla factory revisited. Metabolism 1999; 48: 989-94.
- Olefsky J, Reaven GM and Farquhar JW. Effects of weight reduction on obesity. Studies of lipid and carbohydrate metabolism in normal and hyperlipoproteinemic subjects. J Clin Invest 1974; 53: 64-76.
- Bogardus C, Lillioja S, Mott DM, et al. Relationship between degree of obesity and in vivo insulin action in man. Am J Physiol 1985; 248: E286-91.
- Ferrannini E, Natali A, Bell P, et al. Insulin resistance and hypersecretion in obesity. European Group for the Study of Insulin Resistance (EGIR). J Clin Invest 1997; 100: 1166-73.
- Abbasi F, Brown BW, Jr., Lamendola C, et al. Relationship between obesity, insulin resistance, and coronary heart disease risk. J Am Coll Cardiol 2002; 40: 937-43.
- Swinburn BA, Nyomba BL, Saad MF, et al. Insulin resistance associated with lower rates of weight gain in Pima Indians. J Clin Invest 1991; 88: 168-73.
- Hoag S, Marshall JA, Jones RH, et al. High fasting insulin levels associated with lower rates of weight gain in persons with normal glucose tolerance: the San Luis Valley Diabetes Study. Int J Obes Relat Metab Disord 1995; 19: 175-80.
- Zavaroni I, Zuccarelli A, Gasparini P, et al. Can weight gain in healthy, nonobese volunteers be predicted by differences in baseline plasma insulin concentration? J Clin Endocrinol Metab 1998; 83: 3498-500.
- McLaughlin T, Abbasi F, Carantoni M, et al. Differences in insulin resistance do not predict weight loss in response to hypocaloric diets in healthy obese women. J Clin Endocrinol Metab 1999; 84: 578-81.
- Reaven G, Segal K, Hauptman J, et al. Effect of orlistat-assisted weight loss in decreasing coronary heart disease risk in patients with syndrome X. Am J Cardiol 2001; 87: 827-31.
- McLaughlin T, Abbasi F, Kim HS, et al. Relationship between insulin resistance, weight loss, and coronary heart disease risk in healthy, obese women. Metabolism 2001; 50: 795-800.
- McLaughlin T, Abbasi F, Lamendola C, et al. Differentiation between obesity and insulin resistance in the association with C-reactive protein. Circulation 2002; 106: 2908-12.
- McLaughlin T, Abbasi F, Lamendola C, et al. Heterogeneity in the prevalence of risk factors for cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes mellitus in obese individuals: effect of differences in insulin sensitivity. Arch Intern Med 2007; 167: 642-8.
- Laws A and Reaven GM. Evidence for an independent relationship between insulin resistance and fasting plasma HDL-cholesterol, triglyceride and insulin concentrations. J Intern Med 1992; 231: 25-30.
- Reaven GM, Chen YD, Jeppesen J, et al. Insulin resistance and hyperinsulinemia in individuals with small, dense low density lipoprotein particles. J Clin Invest 1993; 92: 141-6.
- Jeppesen J, Hollenbeck CB, Zhou MY, et al. Relation between insulin resistance, hyperinsulinemia, postheparin plasma lipoprotein lipase activity, and postprandial lipemia. Arterioscler Thromb Vasc Biol 1995; 15: 320-4.
- Kim HS, Abbasi F, Lamendola C, et al. Effect of insulin resistance on postprandial elevations of remnant lipoprotein concentrations in postmenopausal women. Am J Clin Nutr 2001; 74: 592-5.
- Krauss RM. Heterogeneity of plasma low-density lipoproteins and atherosclerosis risk. Curr Opin Lipidol 1994; 5: 339-49.
- Miller GJ and Miller NE. Plasma-high-density-lipoprotein concentration and development of ischaemic heart-disease. Lancet 1975; 1: 16-9.
- Hokanson JE and Austin MA. Plasma triglyceride level is a risk factor for cardiovascular disease independent of high-density lipoprotein cholesterol level: a meta-analysis of population-based prospective studies. J Cardiovasc Risk 1996; 3: 213-9.
- Gaziano JM, Hennekens CH, O'Donnell CJ, et al. Fasting triglycerides, high-density lipoprotein, and risk of myocardial infarction. Circulation 1997; 96: 2520-5.
- Jeppesen J, Hein HO, Suadicani P, et al. Low triglycerides-high high-density lipoprotein cholesterol and risk of ischemic heart disease. Arch Intern Med 2001; 161: 361-6.
- McLaughlin T, Abbasi F, Cheal K, et al. Use of metabolic markers to identify overweight individuals who are insulin resistant. Ann Intern Med 2003; 139: 802-9.
- Reisin E, Abel R, Modan M, et al. Effect of weight loss without salt restriction on the reduction of blood pressure in overweight hypertensive patients. N Engl J Med 1978; 298: 1-6.
- Rocchini AP, Katch V, Schork A, et al. Insulin and blood pressure during weight loss in obese adolescents. Hypertension 1987; 10: 267-73.