Visceral fat in women more strongly linked to diseases

Published: 2019-09-11


In a recent study, led by Åsa Johansson (SciLifeLab/Uppsala University), researchers investigated the relationship between visceral fat – fat surrounding organs and the intestines – and an increased risk of developing diabetes, heart attacks, hypertension and hyperlipidemia. 

The comprehensive study, with over 325,000 participants, confirmed that visceral fat fat is a major risk factor for developing diabetes and cardiovascular diseases, but also that the risk is a larger factor in women. The researchers also investigated how our genes affect fat accumulation and presented a new, simpler, method for estimating the amount of visceral fat.

“To measure the amount of visceral fat, advanced and costly diagnostic imaging techniques are required. We have developed a simple method which instead estimates an individual’s amount of deep belly fat from other parameters, more easily measured than the visceral fat itself, and the method can therefore be used in most clinics,” says Torgny Karlsson, statistician at the Department of Immunology, Genetics and Pathology (Uppsala University) in a press release from Uppsala University.

The method can also help researchers to study the effects of visceral fat on a much larger scale than before.

“We were surprised that visceral fat was more strongly linked to risk of disease in women compared to men. Adding an extra kilogram of visceral fat can increase the risk of type 2 diabetes more than seven times in women, while the same amount of fat accumulation only increases the risk a little more than two times in men,” says Åsa Johansson (SciLifeLab/Uppsala University).

The study, published in Nature Medicine, also showed that the risk of disease increases a lot faster in people gaining small or moderate amounts of visceral fat compared to people that are already obese and gaining even more weight.

“Nonlinear effects like this are very interesting to study and may help us to understand the biology behind the link between visceral fat and disease,” says Torgny Karlsson.

The researchers also tried to find genes affecting the amount of visceral fat and found more than two hundred different genes. Many of them turned out to be directly linked to behaviour suggesting that the main contributor to obesity is, after all, overconsumption and too little exercise. There are also individual differences when it comes to fat distribution meaning that a person who appears thin might still have accumulated a harmful amount of  visceral fat.

“The findings of this study may enable us to simplify measurements of visceral fat, and thus more easily identify people at high risk of developing diabetes and cardiovascular disease,” says Torgny Karlsson.