Skip to main content

Effects of a lifestyle intervention in metabolically benign and malign obesity



We and others recently characterised metabolically benign or healthy obesity (MHO). In the present study we investigated whether a lifestyle intervention is sufficient to place obese insulin-resistant (OIR) individuals in a position where the possible metabolic consequences are similar to those for MHO individuals.


A total of 262 non-diabetic individuals participated in a 9 month lifestyle intervention programme. Obese individuals (BMI ≥ 30.0 kg/m2) were stratified, based on their insulin sensitivity (IS) estimated from an OGTT, into MHO (IS in the upper quartile, n = 26) and OIR (IS in the lower three quartiles, n = 77). Total body and visceral fat were measured by magnetic resonance (MR) tomography and liver fat by 1H-MR spectroscopy.


During the intervention, visceral fat decreased significantly in both groups (both p ≤ 0.009), whereas total body and liver fat decreased only in the OIR group (p < 0.0001; MHO p = 0.12 for total body fat and p = 0.47 for liver fat). IS improved in the OIR group (p < 0.0001), but remained essentially unchanged in the MHO group (p = 0.30). However, despite the significant increase in the OIR group, IS at follow-up barely exceeded 50% of the IS of the MHO group (OIR 9.30 ± 0.53 arbitrary units [AU]; MHO 16.41 ± 1.05 AU; p < 0.0001).


IS improves during the lifestyle intervention in OIR individuals. However, it does not reach a level where adequate protection from type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease is expected. Thus, stratification of obese individuals based on their metabolic phenotype is important to identify those who are likely to need early pharmacological treatment in addition to the lifestyle intervention.


In the last few years it has been shown that metabolically healthy obese (MHO) individuals comprise roughly 30% of obese people and 10% of the adult general population [15]. In addition to having insulin sensitivity that is similar to non-obese individuals, MHO individuals have lower liver fat content and lower intima media thickness (IMT) of the common carotid artery than obese insulin-resistant (OIR) individuals [6].

Current obesity treatment guidelines do not separate MHO and OIR individuals and recommend treatment for all obese individuals, the first-line approach being lifestyle intervention [7]. Data about the effects of lifestyle modifications specifically in MHO and OIR populations are sparse: two small studies implemented energy-restriction diets for 12 weeks and 6 months in women [8, 9], and one a 6 month exercise intervention programme, also in women [10]. All three studies showed an improvement in cardiovascular risk profile in OIR, but not in MHO, women, despite similar weight loss [810]. In view of these findings and the limited healthcare resources, the necessity and the benefit of a lifestyle intervention in MHO individuals has been questioned [11, 12]. On the other hand, while OIR individuals clearly benefit from the lifestyle intervention [810], it is important to know whether this effect is sufficient to place them in a position where protection from obesity-related metabolic consequences is expected. If not, early pharmacological treatment, in addition to the lifestyle intervention, would be the appropriate strategy for these high-risk individuals in order to reduce incidence rates of type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease.

In the present study we addressed this question, using state-of-the-art methods to carefully phenotype 262 non-diabetic individuals who underwent a 9 month structured lifestyle intervention.


Among the 314 white individuals from southern Germany at risk for type 2 diabetes who were included in our previous report [6], 262 participated in our Tübingen Lifestyle Intervention Program (TULIP) [13]. After the baseline measurements, individuals underwent dietary counselling and had up to ten sessions with a dietitian. During each visit participants presented a 3 day food diary and discussed the results with the dietitians. Counselling was aimed to reduce body weight by ≥5%, to reduce the intake of energy from fat to <30% and particularly the intake of saturated fat to ≤10% of energy consumed and to increase the intake of fibre to at least 15 g/4,184 kJ (1,000 kcal). Individuals were asked to perform at least 3 h of moderate sports per week. All participants completed a standardised self-administered and validated questionnaire to measure physical activity and a habitual physical activity score was calculated. Participants were seen by the staff on a regular basis to ensure that these recommendations were followed [13]. Informed written consent was obtained from all participants and the local medical ethics committee approved the protocol.

All individuals underwent a 75 g OGTT. Insulin sensitivity was calculated from the OGTT as proposed by Matsuda and DeFronzo [14] and with the homeostasis model insulin resistance index [15].

Total body, visceral and subcutaneous abdominal fat were measured with magnetic resonance (MR) tomography (Magnetom Sonata; Siemens Medical Solutions, Erlangen, Germany), and liver fat and intramyocellular lipids in the tibialis anterior muscle (IMCLtibialis) with 1H-MR spectroscopy, as previously described by Kantartzis et al. and Stefan et al. [13, 16].

Blood glucose was determined using a bedside glucose analyser (glucose oxidase method; Yellow Springs Instruments, Yellow Springs, CO, USA). Plasma insulin was determined by microparticle enzyme immunoassay (Abbott Laboratories, Tokyo, Japan). Serum total cholesterol, HDL-cholesterol and LDL-cholesterol concentrations were measured with a standard colorimetric method using a Bayer analyser (Bayer HealthCare, Leverkusen, Germany).

Statistical analyses

Data are given as mean ± SE. Data that were not normally distributed (Shapiro–Wilk W test) were logarithmically transformed. Participants were first divided based on their BMI into three groups: normal weight (BMI < 25 kg/m2), overweight (BMI 25–29.9 kg/m2) and obese (BMI ≥ 30 kg/m2). In the obese group, men and women were further separately divided into quartiles based on their insulin sensitivity estimated from the OGTT. Men and women in the upper quartiles were then combined and represented MHO individuals, while men and women in the other three quartiles represented OIR individuals. Differences between baseline and follow-up were tested by the paired Student’s t test. Differences in group means were tested using the Student’s t test or multiple regression models with the variable of interest set as the dependent variable and sex and duration of follow-up as independent variables. A p value ≤0.05 was considered statistically significant. The statistical software package JMP 5.1 (SAS Institute, Cary, NC, USA) was used.


Baseline characteristics of the participants

Among the 262 participants, 43 were normal weight, 116 were overweight, 26 were found to have MHO and 77 were OIR. The characteristics of the latter two groups at baseline are shown in Table 1. Similarly to the larger cohort [6], the groups differed in insulin sensitivity (all measures p < 0.0001), in liver fat content (p = 0.0008) and in IMCLtibialis (p = 0.001), but not in visceral fat (p = 0.07). Fasting glycaemia (p = 0.0014) and fasting and 2 h insulinaemia (both p < 0.0001) were higher in the OIR group.

Table 1 Participant demographic characteristics, body fat distribution and metabolic characteristics at baseline and after the intervention

Longitudinal analysis

The mean duration of follow-up was 9.2 ± 0.2 months. Habitual physical activity was similar at baseline (p = 0.48) and increased similarly in both groups (OIR: 27.3%, MHO: 28.4%, p = 0.83), indicating that participants were compliant with the recommendations.

Changes in measurements of adiposity, body fat distribution and insulin sensitivity during the intervention are shown in Table 1. Body weight (OIR: p < 0.0001; MHO: p = 0.036) and waist circumference (both p < 0.0001) decreased in both groups. Visceral adipose tissue decreased in both groups (OIR: p < 0.0001; MHO: p = 0.009), but the decrease in total adipose tissue was significant only in the OIR group (OIR: p < 0.0001; MHO: p = 0.12). The largest decrease was seen in liver fat in the OIR group (35.4%, p < 0.0001), whereas in the MHO group the decrease was not significant (p = 0.47, Fig. 1a–c). A lesser decrease, albeit significant, in the OIR group (p = 0.036) was found for IMCLtibialis. Unexpectedly, there was a small reduction in HDL-cholesterol levels in both groups. However, this was statistically not significant, indicating that these changes are not clinically relevant.

Fig. 1
figure 1

Total body fat (a), visceral fat (b), liver fat (c) and insulin sensitivity (d) in OIR and MHO individuals. White bars, baseline; black bars, follow-up. (a) OIR p < 0.0001, MHO p = 0.12; (b) OIR p < 0.0001, MHO p = 0.0009; (c) OIR p < 0.0001, MHO p = 0.47; and (d) OIR p < 0.0001, MHO p = 0.30; all baseline vs follow-up. AU, arbitrary units

Similarly to the changes in liver fat, insulin sensitivity, estimated from both the OGTT and the HOMA-IR, increased significantly only in the OIR group (both p < 0.0001), while no change was found in the MHO group (OGTT: p = 0.30; HOMA-IR: p = 0.51). In both groups the change in insulin sensitivity correlated with the change in all measures of adiposity (body weight, waist circumference and total body, visceral and liver fat), except intramyocellular fat (data not shown). However, despite the significant increase in insulin sensitivity in the OIR group, insulin sensitivity at follow-up barely exceeded 50% of the insulin sensitivity in the MHO group (9.30 ± 0.53 vs 16.41 ± 1.05 arbitrary units, p < 0.0001 after adjustment for sex and age, Fig. 1d).

Common carotid artery IMT, which was measured as previously described by Stefan et al. [6], improved, albeit not significantly (from 0.59 ± 0.01 to 0.57 ± 0.01 mm, p = 0.14) during the intervention in OIR individuals. In the MHO group a small increase (from 0.53 ± 0.02 to 0.59 ± 0.02 mm, p = 0.008) was found. However, because IMT is not expected to change very much over such a short period of time and because of the relatively small sample size, we consider this to be a chance finding. Regarding the circulating inflammatory markers C-reactive protein (CRP), IL-6 and TNF-α, significant changes were found only in the OIR group for a decrease in CRP and TNF-α (p = 0.025 and p = 0.005 respectively). The change of IL-6 levels in the OIR group and all changes in the MHO group were not significant.


Current obesity treatment guidelines recommend similar treatment strategies for all obese individuals, beginning with a lifestyle intervention [7]. However, elegant studies from the groups of Gerald Reaven and others independently showed that obese individuals constitute an inhomogeneous group, with metabolically healthy obesity and obesity with rather severe metabolic consequences [15]. Therefore, and in the light of the limited health resources and the financial, personnel and time costs of a lifestyle intervention programme, it is of the utmost importance to distinguish the effects of a lifestyle intervention in MHO and OIR individuals. Preliminary data showed an improvement in cardiovascular risk profile in OIR, but not in MHO women, although both groups lost similar amounts of body weight [810].

In the present study we asked the specific question whether the beneficial effect of a lifestyle intervention in OIR individuals is sufficient to place them in a position where a lower risk for obesity-related metabolic diseases, principally type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease, can be expected. As insulin resistance is the most important common background of these disorders, the focus of our study was insulin sensitivity. Despite the significant increase during the lifestyle intervention in the OIR group, insulin sensitivity at follow-up barely exceeded 50% of the insulin sensitivity of the MHO group. When estimated by the HOMA-IR, insulin resistance at follow-up was close to the cut-off of 2.5 that is associated with clamp-measured insulin resistance [5], indicating that OIR individuals remained essentially insulin resistant despite the intervention. The same trend was noted with regards to body fat distribution and ectopic fat deposition, which is a major determinant of the MHO vs the OIR status [6] and of prediabetes [17]. Certainly, it may well be that a longer duration of our relatively intense intervention may have yielded more positive results for the OIR individuals.

In conclusion, our findings underline the potential benefits of differentiating MHO and OIR individuals in clinical practice. This would help to decide the right therapeutic strategy. For MHO individuals, the option of a lifestyle intervention seems to be less effective if the target is to improve insulin sensitivity, although it may positively affect non-metabolic causes of morbidity and mortality in obesity, such as cancer and traumatic incidences. For OIR people, a lifestyle intervention clearly has positive effects. However, their insulin sensitivity remains very low even after the intervention compared with the MHO group, which indicates putative inadequate protection from type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease. Thus, an early pharmacological treatment of obese insulin-resistant people, additional to the lifestyle intervention, may be considered as an appropriate therapeutic approach.



C-reactive protein

IMCLtibialis :

Intramyocellular lipids in the tibialis anterior muscle


Intima media thickness


Metabolically healthy obese


Obese insulin-resistant


  1. McLaughlin T, Abbasi F, Lamendola C, Reaven G (2007) 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 167:642–648

    PubMed  Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  2. Wildman RP, Muntner P, Reynolds K et al (2008) The obese without cardiometabolic risk factor clustering and the normal weight with cardiometabolic risk factor clustering: prevalence and correlates of 2 phenotypes among the US population (NHANES 1999–2004). Arch Intern Med 168:1617–1624

    PubMed  Article  Google Scholar 

  3. Meigs JB, Wilson PW, Fox CS et al (2006) Body mass index, metabolic syndrome, and risk of type 2 diabetes or cardiovascular disease. J Clin Endocrinol Metab 91:2906–2912

    PubMed  Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  4. Kloting N, Fasshauer M, Dietrich A et al (2010) Insulin sensitive obesity. Am J Physiol Endocrinol Metab 299:E506–E515

    PubMed  Article  Google Scholar 

  5. Calori G, Lattuada G, Piemonti L et al (2010) Prevalence, metabolic features and prognosis of metabolically healthy obese Italian individuals: the Cremona Study. Diabetes Care. doi:10.2337/dc10-0665

    PubMed  Google Scholar 

  6. Stefan N, Kantartzis K, Machann J et al (2008) Identification and characterization of metabolically benign obesity in humans. Arch Intern Med 168:1609–1616

    PubMed  Article  Google Scholar 

  7. Anonymous (1998) Clinical guidelines on the identification, evaluation, and treatment of overweight and obesity in adults—the evidence report. National Institutes of Health. Obes Res 6(Suppl 2):51S–209S

    Google Scholar 

  8. Shin MJ, Hyun YJ, Kim OY, Kim JY, Jang Y, Lee JH (2006) Weight loss effect on inflammation and LDL oxidation in metabolically healthy but obese (MHO) individuals: low inflammation and LDL oxidation in MHO women. Int J Obes (Lond) 30:1529–1534

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  9. Karelis AD, Messier V, Brochu M, Rabasa-Lhoret R (2008) Metabolically healthy but obese women: effect of an energy-restricted diet. Diabetologia 51:1752–1754

    PubMed  Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  10. Arsenault BJ, Cote M, Cartier A et al (2009) Effect of exercise training on cardiometabolic risk markers among sedentary, but metabolically healthy overweight or obese post-menopausal women with elevated blood pressure. Atherosclerosis 207:530–533

    PubMed  Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  11. Karelis AD (2008) Metabolically healthy but obese individuals. Lancet 372:1281–1283

    PubMed  Article  Google Scholar 

  12. Perseghin G (2008) Is a nutritional therapeutic approach unsuitable for metabolically healthy but obese women? Diabetologia 51:1567–1569

    PubMed  Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  13. Kantartzis K, Thamer C, Peter A et al (2009) High cardiorespiratory fitness is an independent predictor of the reduction in liver fat during a lifestyle intervention in non-alcoholic fatty liver disease. Gut 58:1281–1288

    PubMed  Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  14. Matsuda M, DeFronzo RA (1999) Insulin sensitivity indices obtained from oral glucose tolerance testing: comparison with the euglycemic insulin clamp. Diabetes Care 22:1462–1470

    PubMed  Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  15. Matthews DR, Hosker JP, Rudenski AS, Naylor BA, Treacher DF, Turner RC (1985) Homeostasis model assessment: insulin resistance and beta-cell function from fasting plasma glucose and insulin concentrations in man. Diabetologia 28:412–419

    PubMed  Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  16. Stefan N, Kantartzis K, Haring HU (2008) Causes and metabolic consequences of fatty liver. Endocr Rev 29:939–960

    PubMed  Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  17. Kantartzis K, Machann J, Schick F, Fritsche A, Haring HU, Stefan N (2010) The impact of liver fat vs visceral fat in determining categories of prediabetes. Diabetologia 53:882–889

    PubMed  Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

Download references


The study was supported by a grant from the German Research Foundation (Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft - KFO 114), the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research (DLR01GI0925) and the European Community’s FP6 EUGENE2 (LSHM-CT-2004-512013). NS is currently supported by a Heisenberg Grant from the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (STE 1096/1-1).

Duality of interest statement

The authors declare that there is no duality of interest associated with this manuscript.

Author information

Authors and Affiliations


Corresponding author

Correspondence to N. Stefan.

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Cite this article

Kantartzis, K., Machann, J., Schick, F. et al. Effects of a lifestyle intervention in metabolically benign and malign obesity. Diabetologia 54, 864–868 (2011).

Download citation

  • Received:

  • Accepted:

  • Published:

  • Issue Date:

  • DOI:


  • Insulin sensitivity
  • Liver fat
  • Metabolically benign obesity
  • Metabolically healthy obesity
  • Obesity
  • Visceral fat