When Having Less Fat Isn’t Always Better

By Nathaniel Scharping | August 1, 2017 5:12 pm
(Credit: By VGstockstudio/Shutterstock)

(Credit: By VGstockstudio/Shutterstock)

If the recent debate over being “fat but fit” taught us anything it’s that our health is anything but binary. Carrying around a few extra pounds is by no means an indicator of overall health, and being slim doesn’t guarantee longevity. As scientists tease apart the components of a individual fitness, they must consider cardiovascular, metabolic, mental and immune health, as well as other factors. Even when it comes to fat, new research confirms it may be less about how much we have and more about what kinds of fat our bodies hold on to, and where they do it.

White Hat Fat   

Fat comes in two main categories: the visceral fat that surrounds our organs and the subcutaneous fat that lies just under the skin. Most of our fat is subcutaneous, and that’s a good thing, because it’s much better for our bodies. Visceral fat cells tend to let go of fatty lipids soon after they’re stored, allowing them into the bloodstream where they can cause health problems. This realization was important because it indicated not only that the two kinds of fats affect our bodies differently, but it also hinted that fat might not necessarily be all bad.

On the flip side, doctors recently learned that some 20 percent of lean Caucasians possess two or more signs of metabolic syndrome usually only associated with overweight people. These are things like high blood pressure, elevated triglyceride and glucose levels and low HDL (or “good”) cholesterol. The effects of these symptoms were worrying — a 300 percent increase in mortality, according to Norbert Stefan, a professor at the University of Tübingen in Germany specializing in metabolic diseases.

Where the Fat Falls

After conducting a review of the literature, Stefan and his coauthors released a study today in Cell Metabolism that found a paradoxical correlation. The hallmarks of metabolic syndrome seemed to appear only in individuals with less subcutaneous fat in their legs. Those with higher levels of leg fat were actually healthier. Adding to the mystery, this puzzling connection didn’t show up in overweight individuals. And, the correlation only holds for leg fat.

Stefan thinks that it has to do with how leg fat behaves. Just as subcutaneous fat is better at holding on to lipids than visceral fat, leg fat cells are better than abdominal fat cells at keeping lipids out of the bloodstream.

“Subcutaneous leg fat is like a sponge that keeps the fat trapped. And as long as the fat is being trapped, [it does less harm] to the organs,” Stefan says.

This helpful kind of fat actually contributes to our overall health by converting fat into energy stores, as opposed to allowing it to roam around the body. Stefan’s team thinks that the 20 percent of people whose bodies don’t store leg fat likely have an impaired sensitivity to insulin, which helps our bodies store fat. (This is backed up by a 2011 study which found that variations to the IRS1 gene, which codes for a protein that helps cells respond to insulin, are associated with reduced levels of fat storage as well as metabolic issues.)

The work amounts to a further narrowing of our understanding of fat. It’s more than a jiggle around the waist, or a gelatinous mass to be extracted. Fat cells play an important role in regulating metabolic processes within our bodies, and without the right kinds in the right places, we can’t really be healthy.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Health & Medicine
MORE ABOUT: genes & health, obesity
ADVERTISEMENT
  • http://www.mazepath.com/uncleal/qz4.htm Uncle Al

    Social Intent is the triumph of ideas over facts, diversely presented as science wearing a steel-strapped pußy hat.

    • http://www.facebook.com/Kieseyhow KieSeyHow

      The problems arise when one starts asking, “Who’s facts, and what their intents are.”

      I have found that once you adjust for ignorance, emotionalism, and marketing, most people are just wrong… LOL

  • foghorn leghorn

    It would be a huge mistake for people who live in the West to worry about not having enough fat. Although this might be true in a third world country people in the West have way too much fat stored in their bodies. Its going to take years of massively cutting calories and increasing exercise to the point of insanity to get rid of that fat. Even like that they will not be able to come close to not having enough fat.

    In a third world country where food is scarce and the people usually work long hours. I can see how that can happen but this article is not for them since they won’t have time to read this. if they don’t have enough money for food they don’t have enough money for books let alone a computer. So the targeted audience will never run out of fat unless they have some sort of disease.

    • http://www.facebook.com/Kieseyhow KieSeyHow

      Some highly note-worthy points. Good comment.

  • http://www.facebook.com/Kieseyhow KieSeyHow

    I wonder how much money, collectively, would be saved by Western society if no one was overweight? I know people who seem to generate huge bags of garbage each week, and they all seem very unhealthy because it is all processed junk. It takes me about eight months to generate what they do in one week. As a result I spend far less. These people are actually paying willingly for their poor health. It is quite interesting from both psychological and economic levels what drives these people to behave this way. I know what drives me though, paranoia and distrust for practically any corporation and where their core interests lay: profits rather than reliable and quality products. “Lol.”

NEW ON DISCOVER
OPEN
CITIZEN SCIENCE
ADVERTISEMENT

D-brief

Briefing you on the must-know news and trending topics in science and technology today.
ADVERTISEMENT

See More

ADVERTISEMENT

Discover's Newsletter

Sign up to get the latest science news delivered weekly right to your inbox!

Collapse bottom bar
+