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How the Adipose "Organ" Acts to Poison

Inactivity may lead to excess fat, but excess fat is anything but inactive.New scientific research is revealing that adipose tissue is far more than a lifeless layer of oleaginous energy storage.In recent years, scientists have taken to speaking of fat as an “endocrine organ,” much like other glands that pump hormones into our bloodstream, affecting other bodily functions as well as behavior.But as health writer Denise Grady pointed out in her superb New York Times piece, “Fat: The Secret Life of a Potent Cell,” unlike the thyroid or pituitary gland, fat “has a seemingly infinite capacity to make more of itself.Too much body fat can act like a poison, spewing out substances that contribute to diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure, stroke and other illnesses, including some cancers.”The paradigm shift in scientific understanding of fat came with the discovery of leptin, a hormone released by the adipocyte (or fat cell) to signal satiety to the brain.Fat tissue also teams with macrophages that trigger the body’s inflammatory response, which in excess and over time can increase the risk of heart disease, arthritis, Alzheimer’s, cancer and myriad other diseases.Other heft-related hormones have been linked to insulin resistance, which would help explain why excess weight is such a risk factor for diabetes and its attendant ailments.

While health professionals have long known that abdominal fat posed a greater health threat than lower-body largesse (the old apple vs.pear comparison), why the former should prove more lethal than the latter has thus far eluded them.Breakthroughs in understanding adipocyte activity may finally provide the missing link.Researchers speculate that visceral fat (deposited around the organs in the midsection) might even be more metabolically active than subcutaneous fat (the lardy layer under your skin).

The internal organs – particularly the liver – essentially marinate in that sea of fat, vulnerable to the toxic secretions that can monkey with your metabolism.Interestingly enough, this is why liposuction can suck away billions of subcutaneous fat cells without touching the treacherous types tucked around your gut or changing the size of those cells which remain.

“Obese people have huge fat cells, with 50% to 75% more mass than fat cells in lean people,” writes Grady, paraphrasing the observation of Dr.Samuel Klein, director of the Center for Human Nutrition at the School of Medicine at Washington University in St.Louis: “Large fat cells are not a good thing to have because research has found that they are more active metabolically than small ones, and more likely to churn out harmful substances.”

The answer: diet and exercise, or as our makeover candidates might tell you – lifestyle change.

Losing weight by making time for the gym and replacing unhealthy junk food and saturated fat-laden fast food takes effort and self-discipline, but the rewards are far more enduring and the alternatives far more unpleasant.

Take the first step in dropping pounds by shedding the illusion that those rolls of fat or that over-the-belt bulge is merely the innocuous if unsightly evidence of too many return trips to the buffet line.The old adage heretofore employed to balance the scales between the beautiful and the over-bountiful may be truer than previously conceived: it’s not how you look, but rather what’s inside that counts.And when it comes to the active life of your fat cells, too much of what’s inside could be killing you.

Published August 9, 2004

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