Diabetes Self-Management Blog

Mention the word “fat” and you probably think of the greasy stuff found in food or the equally greasy stuff that clings to hips, thighs, and stomachs. Fat gets a pretty bad rap because it’s been drilled into us for so long that fat is “bad.” But fat has some redeeming qualities, too, so I thought I’d sort through some of the murkiness that surrounds this mysterious substance.

Fat Fact #1: Fat isn’t lazy.
Here’s what I mean by this: Many people believe that when we eat fat or gain weight (which is usually fat weight), it goes to the stomach or thighs and sits there, acting all blubbery-like. But behind the scenes, fat is busy being “metabolically active,” meaning that it’s constantly releasing fatty acids and hormone-like substances that trigger many events in the body.

In fact, fat is considered to be the body’s largest endocrine organ, believe it or not. For example, fat releases chemicals that cause blood vessels to constrict. Fat also blocks insulin from doing its job, thereby, leading to higher blood glucose levels. Fat can even infiltrate the heart and liver, leading to heart failure and fatty liver disease. Of course, fat’s extracurricular activities aren’t exactly what we want to have happen, so that’s why you’ll hear the mantra to go easy with how much you eat and to strive for a body weight that’s healthy for you.

Fat Fact #2: Fat comes in different colors.
No, fat isn’t just the yellowish, gelatinous substance that you may picture in your mind. Researchers now know that we have white fat, brown fat, and even beige fat. White fat is what we have a lot (too much) of. Its purpose is to store energy (for that future famine) and release chemicals that make things (often unpleasant things) happen.

Brown fat has a different role: its job is to burn calories to produce heat to keep us warm. Lean people tend to have more brown fat than overweight folks, and children have more brown fat than adults. And brown fat is “triggered” by cold temperatures. The more brown fat you have, the more calories you burn. The trick now is to figure out how to help people increase their brown fat stores in order to burn calories — and lose weight.

Beige fat has been recently discovered and is found near the collarbone and spine in adults. While this type of fat can also burn calories, it’s genetically different than brown fat and is actually formed from white fat.

The bottom line is that you want more of both beige and brown fat, and less of white fat. A hormone called irisin, which is made in the body, stimulates beige fat to burn nearly as many calories as brown fat. Researchers are now hoping to make use of irisin as a possible treatment for obesity. Interestingly, scientists found that a substance called ursolic acid, found in apple peel, increased brown fat and muscle tissue in mice. As the saying goes, an apple a day keeps the doctor away…

Fat Fact #3: Bigger hips are better than bigger bellies.
Granted, neither is very desirable, but if you have to choose, go with bigger hips and thighs. The reason has to do with another type of fat called visceral fat (which I’ve written about before). Visceral, or belly, fat is very pesky. This kind of fat burrows deep in your abdomen and surrounds your internal organs. It releases hormones that trigger a host of health woes, including insulin resistance (which can eventually lead to Type 2 diabetes), to high blood pressure, high cholesterol, stroke, and possibly breast and colon cancer. A waist measurement of greater than 35 inches in women, or greater than 40 inches in men, is indicative of too much visceral fat. To shrink it, don’t turn to liposuction (this may only worsen visceral fat down the road). You’ll need to step up the exercise and jump on the healthy eating bandwagon.

Fat Fact #4: Losing body fat requires both exercise and calorie reduction.
For years, scientists and health experts have gone back and forth about the “best” way to lose weight — either by exercise or by diet, or both. Again, the bottom line is that you really do need to do both. The hard fact is that when you consume more calories than you’re burning off, you’ll store those calories, possibly as glycogen, but most likely, as fat. So, it makes sense to eat less.

But if you also start moving around more, you’ll force your body to burn some of its fat stores. A study published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine this past spring took a look at successful losers. The survey examined more than 4000 obese people and found that those who exercised more and ate less fat lost the most weight compared to people who followed liquid or fad diets, or who took supplements or nonprescription weight-loss medicine. While there is no one weight-loss program that works for everyone, it’s helpful to keep in mind that the tried and true approaches really do work.

More next week!

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