It isn’t breaking news that the majority of the US population is overweight or obese.  The situation has been spiraling out of control for decades.  Prospects for impacting this trend have been so bleak that new data indicating that US obesity rates have stabilized generated extensive news coverage, including segments on two national television networks, with many sources contrasting the high prevalence of obesity with the fact that rates are not climbing.  Should we really be celebrating that a third of adults[1] and one in six kids and teenagers[2] are heavy enough to be considered obese, even if that percentage hasn’t statistically increased since 2003?  Well, let’s consider the population.  From 2003 to 2011, the US population increased by approximately 18 million.  So that would mean about 6 million more obese adults even though the percentage did not increase.  During this same period, humans as a race set a new milestone; for the first time in history there are more overweight people in the world than underweight.[3] 

These statistics are based on BMI; a notoriously inaccurate measure of body composition.  After all, it isn’t really weight that people want to lose, it is body fat.  We have just become accustomed to equating excess weight with excess fat.  But the two can be radically different.  BMI does not adequately take lean muscle mass into account and routinely underestimates the body fat percentage of individuals.  And it is excess body fat, particularly the deep visceral belly fat that is associated with an increased risk of diabetes, cardiovascular disease, high blood pressure, metabolic syndrome, breast cancer, colorectal cancer, gallbladder issues, dementia and more.  As if that was not enough, preliminary research from Boston University researchers has found a “significant” link between visceral fat and lower total brain volume[4].

The research looked at 733 healthy individuals that were part of the Framingham Offspring cohort with an average age of 60.  Seventy percent of the participants were women.  Researchers looked at the potential associations of body mass index (BMI), waist circumference, waist-to-hip ratio, and abdominal fat with the total brain volume.  Abdominal fat was measured by CT scan and could differentiate the deep visceral fat from the subcutaneous fat just under the skin surface.  While there was an association with BMI and waist circumference, the real culprit was visceral fat.  Subcutaneous fat was not [significantly] associated with any adverse effect on the brain volume, whereas visceral fat was clearly associated with smaller brain volume.  Smaller brain volume is associated with poor cognitive function on testing and a greater risk of dementia on follow-up.

 What can you do to reduce your body fat? 

  •  Make the decision to make a change.  Resolutions won’t cut it.  The vast majority only last a couple of months, at best.  This change is for your lifetime.
  • Exercise regularly.  You need to do both strength/resistance and aerobic activity.  Interval training is the best and most effective method of combining both.
  • Low Glycemic nutrition.  Balance is key:  adequate protein, healthy fats and fewer carbohydrates.  Excess sugars and processed carbohydrates are the real enemies.  Not dietary fats.  Avoid man made trans-fats but you need to eat healthy fats in order to lose body fat. 
  • Eat smaller frequent meals throughout the day of natural, nutrient-dense whole foods
  • Hormonal assessment.  Check your hormone levels to determine options for balancing your endocrine system.

 The key message is pretty clear.  How you take care of yourself now will determine how well you can maintain both your physical and cognitive prowess as you age.  This concept is not new.  Don’t wait until it is too late.  There is no time better than now to start living better.

[1] Flegal K, Carroll M, et al. Prevalence of Obesity and Trends in the Distribution of Body Mass Index Among US Adults, 1999-2010. JAMA online January 17, 2012. doi:10.1001/jama.2012.39

[2] Ogden C, Carroll M, et al. Prevalence of Obesity and Trends in the Distribution of Body Mass Index Among US Children and Adolescents, 1999-2010. JAMA online January 17, 2012. doi:10.1001/jama.2012.40

[3] World Health Organization. Obesity and overweight fact sheet No. 311: updated March 2011.

[4] Debette S, Beiser A, et al. Visceral fat is associated with lower brain volume in healthy middle-aged adults. Ann Neurol May 2010