Why stomach fat is the black sheep of body fats

One of the first “diet tips” I ever remember getting was from an elementary (!) school gym teacher who told me I should avoid eating all fat if I wanted to not get fat. She had a lean, fat-free physique and a killer Winona Ryder pixie, so I took her advice and spent the next decade trying to eat less than 2 grams of fat per day and cut my hair.

Yeah, it was bad — both all the fat-free cheese and the haircut. But thankfully we’ve come a long way from that terrible ’90s diet advice, and now we know that some fat, both in our food and on our bods, is good. Unless it’s stomach fat.

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One of the biggest messages to come out of the research since the turn of the century was that visceral fat, the type that sits around the organs in our torsos, is a major health hazard. Subcutaneous fat, the type that sits under the skin and makes cellulite, isn’t pretty, but it’s not bad for you. Gluteofemoral fat, the kind that gives us ladies our curvy butts and thighs, is actually good for you, as it’s been associated with a longer life, better cardiovascular health and even smarter babies. But visceral fat? This tummy fat is a risk factor for heart disease, diabetes, metabolic syndrome, some cancers and is even the body trait most predictive of early death — in fact, the research shows that waist measurements are a more accurate measure of health than BMI is.

But… why? I mean, fat is fat, right? I suppose if I thought about it much, I just imagined that somehow visceral fat strangled (smothered?) our organs, drowning them in the weight of so many curly fries and milkshakes until they just couldn’t do their job anymore. But now we have actual science to back up my weirdo dreams. And it turns out that visceral fat has nothing to do with smothering and everything to do with our immune systems.

According to a new study published in the journal Nature Communications, it all comes down to the dreaded inflammation. We’re going to take a quick trip back to middle school biology. I know, hold me.

Inside each of our cells is a little structure (Ha! Everything in cells is little!) called the endoplasmic reticulum, which is responsible for producing all the proteins in the cell. Normally when we eat, the nutrients from our food get taken into our cells, where the ER turns them into the building blocks our bodies need to build muscle and grow hair and whatever.

But when we overeat, the system gets overwhelmed, and cells in our visceral region (our stomach area that houses nearly all our organs) can’t do their job. Instead they start releasing cytokines, a tiny protein that helps cells communicate with one another. And one of the primary roles of cytokines is to communicate distress to the immune system, letting the body know its cells are under attack. The more cytokines, the more that communique goes from a whisper to a scream. And you know what they’re screaming? Help me, I’m too stressed, and I’m shutting this thing down!

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All those cytokines lead to inflammation and the release of a regulatory molecule in cells called TRIP-Br2 that prevents cells from processing the fat, instead letting it build up right there. Because the cells are no longer able to process the excess food, it ends up being stored right there, as tummy fat. The more tummy fat, the more stressed out your cells are, and the less they can do their job. It’s a vicious cycle on the smallest level that can have huge results for your health.

Of course, the researchers are looking for a cure for obesity, and they suggested possibly developing a medication to stop TRIP-Br2 and spare your cells the freak-out.


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