Study: How Belly Fat Impacts Brain Function

Study: How Belly Fat Impacts Brain Function - One Drop

Body fat is necessary for the purpose of storing energy and calories, but too much of it can cause a multitude of harmful consequences to the body.

Body fat is a marvelous organ. It helps regulate our metabolism. In the context of chronic conditions, though, body fat is a powerful source of inflammatory chemicals. Fat cells produce chemical signals that cause inflammation. Inflammation is the cornerstone of all our chronic degenerative conditions: diabetes, Alzheimer's, Parkinson's, coronary artery disease, and so many more. 

Did you know that body fat has a direct impact on brain health? In a study from 2019, researchers looked at belly fat specifically and what it means for the brain.

What Body Fat Location Means for Brain Function

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In the study, 10,000 people (men and women) were examined based on specific markers: their body mass index (BMI) and waist-to-hip ratio. Then, those measurements were analyzed in relation to brain MRI scans of the same study participants.

It’s important to note the difference in the two initial measurements. BMI is solely based on height and weight; it doesn’t incorporate where body fat might be located. In contrast, waist-to-hip ratio is a measurement of the waist divided by the hip. The larger that ratio, the larger the belly is in reference to the hip (which translates to more fat specifically located in the belly).

Researchers found a direct correlation between belly fat and cognitive decline.

The average age of participants was 55. But, it didn’t matter if one participant was 40, and another was 70. What mattered was body fat number. The results show a decline in the size of the brain (gray matter volume) in comparison to BMI: the higher the BMI, the smaller the brain.

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But, when they broke down the actual location of the fat, they found a crucial biomarker. Where there was no central obesity or fat around the belly, there was a slightly progressive loss of gray matter in the brain.

But, when there was central obesity—significant fat in and around the middle —the relationship between higher BMI and shrinkage of the brain became much more profound, meaning, the location of body fat is crucial.

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The authors are quick to point out that visceral fat is thought to be a major site for inflammation:

“Visceral fat is thought to be a major site for inflammatory cytokine production and has been linked to other vascular risk factors (hypertension, diabetes mellitus) that may be important mechanisms in brain atrophy. Associations between obesity and gray matter volume were only partly explained by diabetes mellitus in the present study. In contrast, subcutaneous fat in the hips and legs has been linked to healthier metabolic profiles, which may provide partial support for the concept of metabolically healthy obesity. Indeed, our data suggested that obese participants (BMI ≥30 kg/m2 ) without central obesity had a gray matter volume similar to that of overweight participants.” 

In other words, having a higher BMI is not necessarily a threat if it’s not associated with that central fat located in the belly.

They conclude by saying that:

“Previous work has hypothesized obesity–gray matter associations specifically in areas involved in behavioral control, reward processing (e.g., the prefrontal cortex in the frontal lobe or striatum with caudate nucleus, globus pallidus, and putamen), homeostasis (hypothalamus).”

What does that mean exactly? That perhaps it’s the shrinkage of the brain that causes loss of control of things like appetite. It could also mean that higher amounts of belly fat increase inflammation, which leads to increased shrinkage of the brain.

The study tells us in absolutes that where body fat is located is critical. It also indicates that body fat located in the middle is a much bigger risk factor in terms of shrinkage of the brain over time. It also proves, yet again, the importance of inflammation as it relates to the brain.

Body fat is a major threat when it comes to our overall health. This study takes our understanding of fat, particularly belly fat, to another level. There’s a very strong relationship between increased body fat and degeneration of the brain.

Basically, brain function declines as the size of the belly increases.

How to Get Rid of Belly Fat

Consider the following:

  • Reduce your intake of processed foods. Focus on good quality protein, carbs, and fats, and include plenty of fruits and vegetables on your plate. 
  • Work movement into your daily routine. Physical activity can help with weight loss, blood pressure, and blood sugar control.
  • Aim for at least seven hours of sleep per night. 
  • Do what you can to manage your stress levels. Taking even five minutes to do something you enjoy can go a long way.


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Mary Elizabeth Adams
Jun 22, 2020

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