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Thursday, September 15, 2005

Big Big Big

Big Belly and Big Bottom

Dr. Lester CN Simon

Take a midday promenade along Market Street from Newgate to the market gate. Try to classify all the people you see along the way. Ignore the fact that some of us are as ugly as a rusty, bent-up, tin can-cup. Ignore that fact that some of us are as good looking as a tall glass of iced, good water quenched against the salty lips of a beaded face sweltering in this satanic, September sun. Disregard the slender ones that will make uncooked macaroni look fat. Just regard the big, fat “one and them” with big belly and big bottom.

Everyone knows that a big belly is not as healthy as a big bottom. Science has come to the same conclusion. It is good and pleasing when common knowledge and science see eye to eye because science is simply organised common sense based on careful observation.

Excessive fat or obesity increases the chance of getting diabetes, harbouring excess, bad fats in the blood stream and having complications involving the heart, brain and blood vessels, to list a few. However, all body fats are not created equal. Fat that is accumulated inside your belly (the apple shape) is much more dangerous to health than fat accumulated under the skin in the region of your bottom (the pear shape).

Since the location of excess fat is more relevant than the amount of total body fat, scientists have been trying for many years to understand what makes a fat belly so dangerous compared to a fat bottom.

Earlier this year, scientists in Osaka, Japan identified a new substance that is produced in much greater amounts by belly fat than by any other part of the body. They called it visfatin because the word “viscera” is used to describe the organs inside the body including the organs inside the belly. These organs can become surrounded by fat and cause the big belly.

The scientists discovered that the more belly fat you have, the more visfatin the belly fat would produce. The next step was to determine the effects of visfatin. Since visfatin is made by the bad, belly fat, common sense suggests that visfatin would do some bad things to the body. For example, belly fat increases the risk of getting diabetes. Hence it was suspected that visfatin would also increase the risk of getting diabetes by raising the blood sugar.

To the surprise of the scientists, visfatin does the opposite to what was expected. Visfatin actually reduces, not increases, the level of blood sugar. In fact, visfatin acts on blood sugar just like insulin. Why is visfatin, a substance produced by the bad, belly fat, acting in a good manner like insulin? Does this mean that a big belly may not be so bad after all?

Scientists are still investigating the role of visfatin. They have encountered an intriguing paradox. On one hand, visfatin from belly fat acts like insulin by lowering blood sugar. Visfatin also acts on the very belly fat that produces it and so gives rise to more belly fat, which in turn produces more visfatin. On the other hand, the excess belly fat can also make substances other than visfatin. These other substances may cause a rise in blood sugar and increase the risk of getting diabetes, raising bad cholesterol and having complications involving the heart, brain and blood vessels.

It would seem that belly fat is like a two-edged sword. It makes visfatin, which can act like insulin and lower blood sugar, which is good for a diabetic. But belly fat also manufactures other substances that have bad effects including raising the blood sugar, which is bad for a diabetic.

Notwithstanding the newly discovered good effect of belly fat, when the bad effects are taken into account, it is better to avoid having a big belly altogether. It seems that, as we so often discover in life, there is good and bad in all things and we must consider and weigh them all to find the balance point.

The study of fat is very important. There is good fat and bad fat in both the type of fat and the location of fat. Pound for pound, you get more energy from dietary fat than you get from either protein or carbohydrate. Fat produces substances that can help to boost the immune system to fight germs. In fact, some scientists note that visfatin is not a new substance and that it was discovered years ago and called by another name because it was known as a booster to white blood cells, which fight infections.

Fat, in moderation, was once a sign of good health. Some scientists consider fat to be the largest organ of the body and they have discovered that fat is the producer of many hormones that affect many parts of the body. Many of those scrawny, match-stick models on the catwalk, whom some people admire, are plagued with myriad medical problems.

One day, scientists may discover the bad effects of a fat bottom compared to fats in other areas. Fat chance. Until then, continue your walk along Market Street and, with due attention to the vehicular traffic, do not be too modest if you find yourself looking back despite your best effort to walk straight ahead.

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