Not all fat is created equal: Why it matters

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Researchers now know a bit more about how belly fat is different than fat in the thighs. Everyone wants to get rid of fat, but new findings suggest targeting belly fat might be a better approach for lowering health risks associated with obesity.

The study, published January 9, 2013 by Sanford Burnham scientists, uncovered genes that are active in fat that accumulates in the midsection and is different from fat in the thighs.

The study authors say the discovery means we should start looking at fat from a different perspective.

Hormones, especially those that accumulate in belly fat, contribute to heart disease and diabetes.

Thigh fat hasn’t been shown to have the same type of hormones and hasn’t been as concerning for risks of metabolic syndrome, heart disease, stroke and diabetes. A higher than normal waist to hip ratio has been linked to higher chance of stroke.

Men are known to be at higher risk for heart disease than are women. That’s because they are shaped differently.

Women tend to be more pear shaped and when we accumulate fat it’s more likely to be in the thighs and buttocks, compared to men.

Fat storage is in the genes

When the scientists for the current study compared genes in belly and thigh fat from men and women, they discovered 125 genes that are expressed differently between fat in the belly and thighs.

They found out that women, have 218 genes in abdominal fat that are different than in thigh fat – 59 of which are the same genes found in adipose tissue of men.

The biggest difference between fat in men and women was found to be from homeobox genes that are influenced by estrogen and other hormones before birth.

Homeobox genes are responsible for our anatomical development in the womb.

Steven Smith, M.D., director of theFlorida Hospital – Sanford-Burnham Translational Research Institute for Metabolism and Diabetes explained homeobox genes are important because they program fat cells to respond to hormones and other signals.

To find out more about how belly and thigh fat differ, Smith and his team isolated stem cells from each both areas (belly and thighs) and grew them in the lab.

Smith explains looking at the stem cells in a lab dish is way to ensure there’s no interference from nerves, hormones or other signals.

They results were the same. Thigh fat and belly fat were still different, telling the researchers that the cells are preprogrammed.

Smith said the finding means we have to think about obesity health risks differently. The real problem is the body’s inability to store fat in the hips and thighs. Belly fat, not just fat, is a “the marker” of the problem.”

Smith explains, “Even though many women hate having large hips and thighs, that pear shape actually reduces their risk of heart disease and diabetes. In fact, women who have heart attacks tend to have more belly fat than thigh fat.”

The scientists say understanding more about the differences between fat in abdomen and thighs could lead to treatments aimed at specific body regions that are known to lead to health complications from obesity.


Sanford Burnham Medical Research Institute

January 9, 2013

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