How Body Fat Harms: The Growing Science Behind “Fat Location”

By Stephen T. Sinatra, M.D., F.A.C.C., F.A.C.N., C.N.S., C.B.T.

Overweight? According to U.S. Government statistics, you’re not alone. More than two out of three adults are overweight or obese. But researchers suspect that the risk to health may be less about how much fat you have then where you have it, a spreading theory summarized in a 2014 article in the journal Arteriosclerosis, Thrombosis, and Vascular Biology. The thinking is that typical subcutaneous (beneath the skin) belly fat, the kind that protrudes around the midsection, is less of a health risk than deeper layers of fat in the abdomen and around organs where it doesn’t belong.

Such out-of-place fat is called ectopic fat and it produces inflammatory and other chemicals with harmful effects both systemically and locally on nearby organs and tissues, including negative influences on insulin resistance, glucose and lipid metabolism, clotting, and inflammation. Examples: deeper belly fat is strongly linked to metabolic syndrome and cardiovascular risk; fat around the neck, to systemic vascular resistance, meaning constriction of blood vessels that causes the heart to work harder; fat in and around the kidneys may harm renal function and contribute to hypertension; and excess fat around the heart’s coronary arteries could alter these critical cardiac blood vessels.

“Both obese and apparently lean individuals can have ectopic fat,” researchers say, and thus “regional fat distribution may play an important role in the development of cardiovascular diseases in both nonobese and obese people.”

 My Viewpoint: For sure being too heavy is linked to significant cardiovascular risks and survival. For some years now, researchers have looked beyond general obesity and found that variations in body fat distribution have distinct metabolic and cardiovascular disease risks. For instance, excess waist circumference (over 35 inches for women, and over 40 for men) contributes to metabolic syndrome, a forerunner to diabetes and heart disease. However, it is the deeper layer of belly fat, called visceral adipose tissue, which creates a higher risk than the fat layer just under the skin and overall obesity.

 What this Means to You: More research is needed, but researchers are honing their fat knowledge and utilizing a variety of imaging techniques, such as computed tomography (CT) and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), to scan the location and metrics of fat deposits. For the public, it is important to realize that common lifestyle mistakes, such as overindulgence of sweets and lack of lack of exercise are primary and preventable causes of weight gain and fat buildup.

 Recommendation: To keep fat off, reduce consumption of refined carbohydrates and sweeteners. Carbs and sweets overload the body with calories and glucose, lead to metabolic mayhem and the body’s inability to use insulin and regulate glucose. End result: carbs/sweets turn to fat. Favor fresh fruits and vegetables, and avoid as much as possible processed carbohydrates (pastas, breads, cookies, etc.). Don’t fall into a sedentary lifestyle and make exercise a part of your daily fat busting routine.

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