Abdominal obesity: Greater than the sum of its parts

Stress is an everyday fact of life. When we’re stressed, the subconscious temptation to turn to so-called comfort foods can be powerful, and if we’re in a hurry, the fast-food options beckon loudly. Unfortunately those foods tend to be high in fat and sugar, and it’s common knowledge that those soothing calories can make us gain weight. For some, however, the weight gain is primarily in the abdomen and is noticeably disproportionate to the number of calories consumed.

Until now, the specific reasons for abdominal weight gain in some people have remained a scientific mystery. Clearly, genes do play a major role in body type, and men who gain weight are more likely to increase their waist size, while women tend toward larger hips and thighs with weight gain. But it’s not completely genetic. Scientists recently reported in Nature Medicine that the tendency to collect fat in the abdominal region could be exacerbated or even caused by a substance that is released in the body when chronic stress is combined with a high-fat and high-sugar diet—exactly the diet many people turn to when they are stressed or in a hurry.

It’s no secret that high-fat, high-sugar diets are associated with health risks. If chronic stress is added to that mixture, neuropeptide Y (NPY) and its receptor (NPY2R) are apparently produced by the body in higher levels than they would be without the added stress. NPY is known to stimulate appetite in the brain, particularly for high-carbohydrate foods. NPY is also known to stimulate the enlargement of cells and the production of new blood vessels to accommodate the resulting increased need for nourishment.

In discussing this study, conducted on mice, the authors reported that stress “not only increased circulating NPY but, when combined with an HFS [high fat and sugar] diet, . . . led to abdominal obesity within two weeks and to a metabolic syndrome–like condition after three months.” Metabolic syndrome is a collection of conditions including increased blood pressure, abnormal cholesterol or insulin levels, and abdominal obesity, which, in combination, greatly increases the risk of heart disease, hypertension, stroke and even type 2 diabetes. Stress alone did not produce this condition; however, if the rodents consumed a high fat and sugar diet while under stress, their bellies ballooned and their health plummeted.

The concentration of fat in the abdominal area carries a particularly disconcerting danger. White adipose tissue naturally wraps around the internal organs, cushioning them and protecting them from damage. But when too many fat cells develop, as with abdominal obesity, the risk of metabolic syndrome increases. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), about one in every five adults (21.2 percent) has metabolic syndrome.

The study also found that blocking the NPY receptors caused added fat to vanish over time. This discovery will undoubtedly have pharmaceutical companies clamoring to develop applications for humans, both to reduce unwanted fat and to build up fat in other areas of the body where shaping and plumping is desired. Such applications for humans will not be available until after extensive research, development and testing are complete.

But there’s no need to wait for medicine. The new understanding of this form of obesity and its related hazards can help those willing to change. The prescription seems simple enough: Those at risk need to decrease their intake of excess fats and sugars while also decreasing their stress levels.

One way to achieve this dual goal is to concentrate on stress-free, healthy mealtimes. Eliminating high-fat, high-sugar, processed foods from the diet and concentrating on making mealtime relaxing can make a huge difference over time. With advance planning, this is certainly achievable, whether you dine alone or with others. Healthful, stress-free meals do not have to be elaborate. Even in the book of Proverbs, we read that a morsel of dry bread in a peaceful setting is better than a banquet of feasting in an environment of strife and stress.

We now have more understanding of the wisdom of this ancient advice, as the prevention of dangerous abdominal obesity and metabolic syndrome through these two steps is a relatively simple way to greatly improve our health.

Reprinted by permission from www.viksion.org.

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