Not all fat is the same

Its location on the body makes the difference. Abdominal fat is especially dangerous.

Whenever somebody carries around too much weight it is usually visible. A look at the scale and the body mass index (BMI) tell one if you are suffering from morbid overweight (BMI over 30kg/m²). But the body weight does not tell us about the fat distribution within the body. This, however, plays a big role in determining how big the health risk really is.  Especially abdominal fat bears a risk even though even this can be distributed differently - either between the abdominal organs (visceral) or under the skin (subcutane). Only imaging procedures can show where the fat depots are located. Mathias Raschpichler, research fellow at the Integrated Research and Treatment Center (IFB) AdiposityDiseases Leipzig explains why these diagnostic methods are so important and which advantages they offer.

Matthias Raschpichler has been dealing with body fat in general and abdominal fat in particular for two years now. "I'm interested in the most precise measuring possible of the phenomenon  weight gain, the distribution of fat and the body composition," he says. This can only measured precisely with magnetic resonance tomography (MRT). No other imaging procedure can make equally reliable prognosis about the fat distribution. "Ultrasound is not very effective for this purpose and the CAT scanner's radiation dosis is too high," explains Raschpichler.

The IFB in Leipzig is one of the few centers that apply the MRT method in order to measure body fat distribution. Having a precise image of the fat distribution can be descisive (see image 1 and 2 below). Because not all fat is the same. Overweight centered in the abdominal area (apple type) poses a higher risk for later suffering from cardiovascular disorders, diabetes and high blood pressure. Fat depots in the abdominal area and around the inner organs (visceral) are especially dangerous since they negatively influence the metabolism. Overweight centered in the hip area (pear type) which is characterized by subcutane fat pads on hips, butt and upper thighs, on the other hand, are less risky for the patient's health.

In fact it is not new that this diagnostic method is also applied in the field of adiposity. "But we tried to simplify the evaluation in a way that it is also applicable for non-radiologists," says the young scientist. The question why some patients put on abdominal fat viscerally and others subcutanely could not yet be clarified by science. "Apart from age, sex, hormonal and nerval factors have an influence. But we do not yet know which exactly."

The factors and mechanics might play a minor role for patients. For them it is beneficial to see first successes of the treatment. "Images of one's own fat distribution could be a motivation to further work on oneself, even when the weight sometimes only falls slowly. With the help of MRT images it can be seen where and how the fat shrinks." 

Carmen Brückner

Image 1 - In the MRT image a rather subcutane fat depot can be seen. (The visceral fat is colored red.)
Image 2 - Here the less healthy fat distribution with more visceral fat can be seen.

Keywords: IFB-research, fat tissue & BMI