by Julie Paff, RD, LD, CDE
We all have body fat, and many of us are working to lose weight and lose body fat inches as a New Year's resolution. Many of us are not aware that body fat is necessary in small amounts, but too much can increase our risk for diabetes, heart disease and cancer. We actually have different types of body fat in our body and where we carry that fat may increase our risk for disease as well.
Seton Diabetes Education Center
or call 512-324-1891
It is important to understand that we all need some fat in our body to be healthy. As the percentage of body fat increases, so does our health risk. However, the type of body fat also increases our risk for diabetes, heart disease and other chronic conditions.
What are the types of body fat?
There are two types of body fat:
Subcutaneous fat--found just under the skin over the
entire body. It is the fat you check when you "pinch an
inch". "Love handles" are really subcutaneous fat. This
is the fat under our skin throughout the body, and
includes the fat over our thighs and the fat covering
our buttocks. Subcutaneous fat works to promote health
and has the following functions:
- Insulates our body from environmental extremes, especially in cold climates
- Protects muscle tissues and organs from damage by padding bony points where pressure damage might result--like the area we sit on and the soles of our feet.
- Provides an energy reserve that can be used during illness or extended periods with missed meals.
- Stores vitamins until they are needed for body functions.
If we have too much subcutaneous fat, it can increase the risk for diabetes, heart disease, and high blood pressure. However, in small amounts, subcutaneous fat serves important body functions and is essential for health.
- Visceral fat--found deep inside our body, attached to major organs and in our belly area. Visceral fat may also be streaked in muscle cells as we grow older. Visceral fat may be referred to as a "beer belly." A person can be relatively thin and still have abnormally high amounts of visceral fat. Doctors often refer to visceral fat as 'toxic fat' or "deadly fat," because visceral fat increases one's risk for diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure, colon and breast cancer, gallbladder disease and Alzheimer's disease.
Genetics strongly influences how much visceral and subcutaneous fat we have in our body. As we age, and, after menopause for women, we lose some muscle and replace it with body fat. As we age, more of the fat collects around our belly too.
Genetics determines that some of us will have more body fat than others. Studies have shown that obesity runs in families. A large and well-controlled research study conducted at the Institute of Biomedical and Clinical Science at the University of Exeter showed that a specific gene sequence, called FTO, is linked to higher Body Mass Index, larger waist circumference, higher fasting glucose levels, higher triglyceride levels, and lower HDL (good) cholesterol levels. This FTO gene type is very common--it is present in up to 65% of all persons of European or African descent, and is found in up to 42% of persons of Asian descent. Some people have two copies of this variant and they are much higher risk for weight challenges and diabetes, according to the researchers, especially if they do not have an active lifestyle.
|Gender and Ethnicity||Waist Circumference Associated with Highest Risk for Diabetes and Heart Disease|
|Men (Non Asian)||40 inches or more|
|Asian Men||35.5 inches or more|
|Women||35 inches or more|
|Asian Women||31.5 inches or more|
If your parents have diabetes or are overweight with a larger waist line, you are at higher risk for excess visceral fat and you are at increased risk for diabetes and heart disease. Knowing that you are at increased risk allows you to act early and prevent future health risks with diet and physical activity changes now. If you are at risk, two interventions work together to lower your weight and body fat percentage.
- Choose appropriate portions of healthy foods, assuring that total caloric intake is slightly less than you need to maintain your current weight. A Registered Dietitian can assist you with appropriate targets for caloric intake.
- Incorporate cardiovascular exercise and strength-training on a regular basis. A Certified Fitness Trainer can help you develop a good exercise plan for you.
- Cardiovascular exercise requires you to increase your heart rate with activities like brisk walking, jogging, running, or dancing.
- Strength-training focuses on increasing your muscle mass--examples include weight lifting and resistance exercises.
- You cannot spot reduce belly fat simply by exercising the abdominal area (like doing crunches)…weight loss and moderately intense exercise promotes the loss of visceral or belly fat.
How Do I Lower the Amount of Visceral Fat in my Body?
You cannot decrease ONLY visceral body fat, but when you lose weight, you decrease all excess fat (subcutaneous and visceral fat). Weight loss is proven to lower your risk for diabetes, heart disease and cancer.
The CDC recommends at least 30 minutes of physical activity five days per week (a total of 150 minutes per week) to lower your disease risk--this amount of exercise has been correlated to preventing an increase in visceral fat. Even exceeding this target by a small amount will have a significant impact on reducing visceral fat stores. For sustained weight loss in persons with the FTO gene type, 60 minutes per day most days is the recommended target to reach as you step up your activity gradually. If you are not currently exercising, the key take home message is to add some physical activity in a realistic way. Start with 10 minute walk around the block and gradually work up to a reasonable goal for you. The researchers at Duke University note that our genetic pool is not that different from previous generations, but our jobs are more sedentary than in the past.... so these changes in our work environment are contributing to increased risk for diabetes and heart disease. We now need to explore physical activity in our downtime because we cannot get that level physical activity in our work day.
You can make changes today to assure a healthier future. If you have diabetes or pre-diabetes and are currently struggling with starting or sticking to an exercise routine, you are encouraged to enroll in a free seminar at Seton Diabetes Education Center on January 18, entitled, Moving to Health in the 2012. Gladys Nicholls, a Senior Physical Therapist at Seton Outpatient Rehabilitation Center will talk about starting an exercise plan and overcoming barriers that are keeping you from exercising right now. While the seminar is free, space is limited, so you are asked to enroll online at www.goodhealth.com/diabetes or call 512-324-1891 to register by phone.
About Julie Paff
Julie Paff is a Registered Dietitian and Diabetes Educator at Seton Diabetes Education Center. She regularly sees persons with diabetes, pre-diabetes and metabolic syndrome.