Keen Cuisine: The Fat Chronicles

Researchers are discovering how body fat harms—and how some foods fight back.

By Sarah Henrich, published on July 3, 2011 - last reviewed on June 9, 2016

 Half glass of red wine

Excess body fat is linked to an array of chronic diseases—diabetes, high blood pressure, cardiovascular disease including stroke. The U.S. Surgeon General estimates that over 300,000 deaths per year are attributable to obesity. Despite the long-recognized link, only now are researchers understanding the connections between body weight and its health consequences. What's more, evidence is also accumulating that excess body fat impacts the brain as well. Exactly how much fat we store—and especially where—reflects complex interactions between genes and the environment. But if abundance of food is a cause, it may also be the cure. Some foods have special value in the battle of the bulge.

 'Apples' and 'Pears'

Your body shape determines the health effects of the fat you carry. The pear-shaped—whose fat accumulates at the hips—store fat for energy and use it when the body needs extra calories—say, during lactation and nursing. The apple-shaped gain fat in the abdomen, which is linked to fat-cell inflammation as well as diabetes. A newly identified protein in the apple-shaped, which stirs immune overreactivity, has kicked off efforts to find an inhibitor as a way to guard against the damaging effects of belly fat.

Weighty Memories

Belly fat—even among people of normal weight—raises the risk of dementia later in life, researchers report. A 36-year study of middle-aged men and women found that those with excess abdominal fat were 2.3 to 3.6 times more likely (depending on their overall weight) to develop dementia in their 70s. Scientists suspect that long-term exposure to inflammation incited by the fat cells destroys brain neurons, reducing cognitive capacity. Insulin resistance is separately tied to cognitive decline.

Belly Buster

A newly discovered substance, sterculic oil, derived from the seeds of a tropical tree, suppresses an enzyme associated with insulin resistance, a major consequence of abdominal fat. Increases in belly fat force the body to rev up insulin output, but resistance to insulin builds, resulting in diabetes and other metabolic ills. In tiny doses, sterculic oil restores insulin sensitivity. It may also curb belly fat itself. Researchers hope to create a protective nutritional supplement from the odorless oil.

Fish Fanatics

Despite an obesity rate of 70 percent, the Yup'ik Eskimos of Alaska do not have the usual diseases linked to excess body fat. Researchers now find that the makeup of their diet provides unusual protection against diabetes and heart disease. The Yup'ik eat 20 times more fatty fish than other Americans, consuming high levels of omega-3 fats DHA and EPA, primarily from salmon and sardines. The omega-3s likely block rises in levels of fatty triglycerides and inflammatory C-reactive protein that usually accompany obesity.

Great Grapes

Score another point for resveratrol, the antioxidant found in red grapes and red wine. Basque researchers have shown that, in mice and men, it blocks lipid accumulation in adipocytes and activates the breakdown of fats in the fat cells. It essentially mimics the effect of calorie restriction and, like it, may prolong life. One glass of red wine with low-cal meals, say researchers, could be a "useful tool for reducing body fat." It looks increasingly possible to diet, shrink body fat, and enjoy the process as well.