Thursday, July 11, 2013

Really, What Kind of Fat?

by Glen Depke, Traditional Naturopath

It used to be that we would simply worry about being fat or not but it is not that easy any more. We hear of terms such as body fat, brown fat, white fat, visceral fat, skinny fat and the list goes on. While fat has a bad reputation, it is essential for optimal health and wellness. We just want the right kind of fat and in the best amounts of each of us individually. So "get" that you do not have to agonize over this or try to exercise it all away. Just have a healthy relationship with your fat. 

Fat is intriguing and becoming more so every day. We are just beginning to understand fat and honestly, this is a very fascinating subject. Fat plays a huge role in brain health and did you know that you produce much more energy breaking down fat rather than carbohydrates. So much for the carb loading we all focused on in the 80's.

First off, fat has two main functions, one being the storage of excess calories and the other is the release hormones that control metabolism. This is just the tip of the iceberg though as we look deeper at the different types of fat in the body.

First we'll look at brown fat. Brown fat has gotten a lot of buzz recently, with the discovery that it's not the worthless fat scientists had originally thought.

In recent studies, scientists have found that lean people tend to have more brown fat than overweight or obese people and that when stimulated it can burn calories. 

It's known that children have more brown fat than adults, and it's what helps them keep warm. Brown fat stores decline in adults but still help with warmth. Brown fat is now thought to be more like muscle than like white fat. When activated, brown fat burns white fat.

Although leaner adults have more brown fat than heavier people, even their brown fat cells are greatly outnumbered by white fat cells. As an example a 150 pound person may have 20 to 30 pounds of fat but only about 2 to 3 ounces of this may be brown fat. But that 2 ounces if maximally stimulated, could burn off enough calories in a day to lose up to a pound in a week.

Understand that white fat is much more plentiful than brown. The job of white fat is to store energy and produce hormones that are then secreted into the bloodstream.

Small fat cells produce a "good guy" hormone called adiponectin, which makes the liver and muscles sensitive to the hormone insulin, in the process making us less susceptible to diabetes and heart disease. When people become fat, the production of adiponectin slows down or shuts down, setting them up for disease.

Subcutaneous fat is found directly under the skin. It's the fat that's measured using skin-fold calipers to estimate your total body fat. In terms of overall health, subcutaneous fat in the thighs and buttocks, for instance, may not be as bad and may have some potential benefits compared to a much more dangerous fat such as visceral fat. Subcutaneous fat cells on the belly may be another story as there's emerging evidence that the danger of big bellies lies not only in the deep visceral fat but also the subcutaneous fat.

Visceral fat, which is the most dangerous fat, wraps around the inner organs and is a leading cause of chronic illness. Visceral fat drives up your risk for diabetes, heart disease, stroke, and even dementia. Visceral fat is thought to play a larger role in insulin resistance, which increases the risk of diabetes more than other fat. It's not exactly clear why, but it could explain or partially explain why visceral fat is a health risk. The link between visceral fat and dementia has been studied and the results are likely not surprising. Those with the biggest bellies and specifically visceral fat had a higher risk of dementia than those with smaller bellies and less visceral fat. The link was true even for people with excess belly fat but overall of normal weight.

This does not explain why belly fat and dementia are linked, but speculates that substances such as leptin, a hormone released by the belly fat, may have some adverse effect on the brain. Leptin plays a role in appetite regulation but also in learning and memory.

Belly fat has gotten a mostly deserved reputation as an unhealthy fat. Understand that belly fat is both visceral and subcutaneous. So if you've got an oversize belly, figuring out how much is visceral and how much is subcutaneous isn't as important as recognizing a big belly is unhealthy, she says. How big is too big? Women with a waist circumference more than 35 inches and men with a waist circumference more than 40 inches are at increased disease risk but recognize that this is not individualized. In our clinic, we measure the visceral fat with every new client to recognize any potential health risk right away.

Abdominal fat is viewed as a bigger health risk than hip or thigh fat and that could mean having a worse effect on insulin resistance, boosting the risk of diabetes, and a worse effect on blood lipids, boosting heart and stroke risk.

While men tend to accumulate fat in the belly, it's no secret that women, especially if pear-shaped, accumulate it in their thighs and buttocks.

Unsightliness aside, emerging evidence suggests that pear-shaped women are protected from metabolic disease compared to big-bellied people. Thigh fat and butt fat might be good, referring to that area's stores of subcutaneous fat. But the benefit of women being pear shaped may stop at menopause, when women tend to deposit more fat in the abdomen.

So when you lose weight, what kind or kinds of fat do you shed? You're losing white fat and people tend to lose evenly all over. The results change a bit, however, if you add workouts to your nutritional plan as exercise plus diet you will tend to lose slightly more visceral fat from your belly.

So in the end, understand that body fat is a good thing as long as it is under control and the right type. To learn more about getting control of your fat and dropping the "bad" fat visit, Unleash Your Thin.

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