It’s a topic that many doctors don’t want to touch: Fraught with political incorrectness, the subject of body fat is just too sensitive for many health professionals to mention. As a result, most people remain unaware of just how detrimental excess fat (especially around the midsection) can be to the health.
When excess fat accumulates, it begins to secrete toxic chemicals known as adipokines. These are believed to contribute to the development of many health conditions, including diabetes, heart disease and cancer.
The fat that pushes your belt out is much more than a cosmetic issue. Researchers have shown that abdominal fat behaves more like an organ within the body—pumping out hormones and adipokines that give rise to inflammation. High accumulations of C-reactive protein, a marker for inflammation/heart disease risk, are found in belly fat.
This kind of fat also breaks down into fatty acids, which flow directly into the liver and muscle cells. Inside the liver, the fatty acids increase the production of LDL (bad) cholesterol and triglycerides. Fats then enter the blood stream, setting the stage for heart disease. Research also shows that abdominal fat triggers a change in angiotensin—a hormone that controls the constriction of blood vessels. This increases the risk for high blood pressure, stroke and heart attack.
Type 2 diabetes
One of the adipokines secreted by excess abdominal fat has been dubbed resistin (from “resistance to insulin”). It causes blood sugars to become unbalanced by decreasing insulin’s ability to control blood glucose levels. Over time, this can lead to type 2 diabetes.
Doctors use the term metabolic syndrome to describe a group of conditions that puts people at elevated risk of developing cardiovascular disease, stroke and type 2 diabetes. A primary risk factor for metabolic syndrome is abdominal obesity.
Although it is easy to accept that obesity is a risk factor for heart disease and diabetes, the concept of fat cells being associated with cancer may come as a surprise. Yet researchers have known for some time that the stress/cortisol/excess fat/cancer link is very real.
The growth and proliferation of new fat cells in many ways resembles the process of cancer, and increases the risk of breast, prostate, colon, uterine, cervix, kidney, and pancreatic cancers.
Studies have linked the adipokines that switch on preadipocytes (“baby” fat cells that we are born with and remain with us throughout life) to the growth of these cancers, suggesting that the processes that increase abdominal fat (including the development of supportive blood vessels) also cause tumours to develop and grow. (Losing weight will prevent the preadipocytes from developing into fat cells and reduce the associated risk for development of these cancers.)
For postmenopausal women who gain fat weight, the risk of breast cancer is increased due to fat cells secreting estrogen. Substantial evidence exists to place obesity as the No.1 risk factor for post- menopausal breast cancer, especially estrogen receptor-positive breast cancer.
The good news
Fortunately, the risks for developing heart disease, cancer and diabetes fall significantly once excess fat pounds are lost. Even a 5 to 10 per cent reduction in weight can significantly reduce inflammatory markers in the blood, while cholesterol and blood sugar levels normalize. In the case of all diseases, the earlier you reduce the risk factors for that disease, the better.