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Fat in the wrong places may lead to health problems

Having deposits of fat around the organs inside the body and around the tummy can increase the chances of heart problems and cancer, a new study shows.

BMJ Group News

What do we know already?

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People who are overweight seem to have a greater chance of having some health problems, especially those affecting the heart, and some cancers. But studies have shown that not all people who are overweight or who have a high body mass index (BMI) have the same risk of health problems. This suggests that the effect of body weight on the risk of health problems is complex.

One theory is that the risk of heart problems and cancer is more to do with where in the body a person has fat deposits. Early studies have suggested that fat around the tummy ( abdominal or visceral fat) or another type of fat that gathers around the internal organs (ectopic fat) may be more dangerous than fat elsewhere, such as under the skin (subcutaneous fat). But there haven’t been many studies that have looked at this in detail.

To find out more, researchers looked at about 3,000 people who took part in a study of heart disease called the Framingham study. The participants were on average 50 years old and overweight. They all had a scan to measure their fat deposits and where in the body the fat was located. The researchers then looked to see if there was a link between where the body fat was located and how likely people were to have heart disease or cancer.

What does the new study say?

Overall, 90 people in the study had heart problems, 141 developed cancers, and 71 people died.

The more fat deposits people had around their internal organs (ectopic fat), the more likely they were to have heart problems and cancer, even after accounting for things like their weight and their waist measurements.

How reliable is the research?

This study was done to try to find out more about a theory that still has to be fully understood and proven. We need more studies to understand the relationship between the location of body fat and the risk of heart disease and cancer.

The participants in the study were mostly white, so we don’t know if these results apply to people of other ethnicities. The study lasted an average of five years, and we would need longer studies to be more confident that the link was genuine.

What does this mean for me?

It has long been thought that people who have more fat around their middle are more at risk of health problems than those whose body fat is more evenly distributed, or is mainly on their buttocks and thighs - it’s why you sometimes hear people described as either ‘apple shaped’ or ‘pear shaped’. This study suggests that there may be some truth in that idea, and that some kinds of body fat may cause problems while others may not.

Losing weight and keeping it off can be difficult. Many people find it easier to follow a weight-loss programme with help from a professional such as a GP, nurse, dietitian, or counsellor. If you think you may need to lose weight as part of looking after your health, your doctor is a good place to start.

Published on July 11, 2013

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