Everyone knows that fat is where the extra calories you eat end up and the reason your clothes fit too tightly. Body fat, or adipose tissue, is an efficient way to store excess energy. When you eat more calories than you expend, the extra energy can be stored as fat. Body fat is essential for storing extra energy, something that allowed our caveman ancestors to survive times when food was scarce. Beyond simply storing energy, research also shows that fat plays an active role in health and disease.
Some fat is stored beneath your skin, which you can feel when you “pinch an inch.” This is called subcutaneous fat, and it is what most people think about when they think of body fat. It is also the fat that people see change when they gain or lose weight.
But you also store fat in other places in your body, which can have important health effects.
Subcutaneous fat is stored between the skin and muscle and may or may not be distributed evenly throughout the body. Some people tend to store fat in their hips and thighs while others store it in their upper body. Much of this is determined by genetics, which also influences where fat is lost during weight loss.
Fat is also stored beneath the muscle wall in the abdomen. This is called visceral fat, because it surrounds the intestines and other internal organs. Visceral fat is known to be associated with a greater risk for diabetes, high blood pressure, and heart disease than subcutaneous fat. This is in part due to the chemical signals called adipokines that are released from visceral fat and have effects on other organs and tissues resulting in insulin resistance and inflammation.
A simple way to tell if you have excess visceral fat is to measure your waist circumference. If it is greater than 36” for females or 40” for males, you are at risk. This is especially true if you aren’t able to pinch much fat around your waist, which suggests you have less subcutaneous fat and more visceral fat. Keep in mind that this isn’t foolproof. A high waist circumference doesn’t always mean excess visceral fat, but it’s a good indicator.
Fat can also accumulate inside the liver, a condition that is called fatty liver disease. You might expect this to be the result of eating too much fat in your diet, but a more common cause is too much sugar. When you eat excessive amounts of sugar, the liver can turn it into fat. This is especially true if the sugar is fructose, which is found in many artificially sweetened foods and beverages as high fructose corn syrup. When the liver converts fructose to fat, it damages the liver and can lead to inflammation, cirrhosis, and liver failure.
The bottom line is that excess fat anywhere is unhealthy, but some forms of fat are particularly dangerous. Losing weight and body fat can reduce the negative effects of body fat. Improving your diet to reduce sugar intake is important for weight control and to minimize liver damage. Exercise also plays an essential role in reducing or reversing some of the negative effects of excess fat so you should strive to be more active every day regardless of your body weight.
Dr. Brian Parr is an associate professor in the Department of Exercise and Sports Science at USC Aiken where he teaches courses in exercise physiology, nutrition and health behavior. You can learn more about this and other health and fitness topics at http://drparrsays.com or on Twitter @drparrsays.
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