Study: How Belly Fat Impacts Brain Function

Study: How Belly Fat Impacts Brain Function

Body fat is something many of us (if not all of us) struggle with. It’s necessary for the purpose of stored energy and calories, but too much of it can cause a multitude of harmful consequences to the body.

Body fat is an organ. It helps to regulate our metabolism, which is a marvelous and necessary feature. 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, which you probably already know.

What you may not be aware of is body fat’s direct impact on brain health. In a study from 2019, researchers looked at belly fat specifically and what it means for brain health.

What Body Fat Location Means for Brain Function

BMI and brain function - obesity and brain function - obesity and disease - belly fat and brain function

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 the 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 number, the larger the belly is in reference to the hip (which translates to more fat specifically located in the belly).

So what did they find? The researchers found a direct correlation between belly fat specifically 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.

body weight and brain function - body weight gray matter

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.

body weight and brain function - belly fat and brain function - obesity and brain function - how belly fat impacts the brain

The authors are quick to point out in their paper 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 -- we know this. But 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

To rid our bodies of this constant state of inflammation, the excess belly fat, and brain decline, there are specific actions we can and should take.

Perhaps the most important step to take is reducing the need for insulin. Insulin is our fat storing hormone. High levels of insulin trigger weight gain specifically in and around the belly, as well as inflammation and oxidative stress (among a laundry list of other issues). The insulin levels continue to rise, eventually leading to insulin resistance that drives even further production of belly fat.

The less insulin you need, the less belly fat your body will store. So how can we reduce our need for insulin. It’s carbs. Lowering carb intake is vital. Sugar, starch, rice, bread, cereals, ice cream -- these only serve to feed our belly fat.

We should actively try to reduce our processed food intake; processed foods that we do consume should be high in protein and low in carbs. When possible, we should make eating whole foods, right from the earth, our top priority.

Getting adequate amounts of exercise, connecting with others, limiting stress, and sleeping well (and enough) are other key factors in reducing insulin resistance and belly fat.

Food for thought, literally!

Link copied to the clipboard. ×
Mary Elizabeth Adams
Jun 22, 2020

Additional Reading

The Only Pesto Recipe You'll Ever Need

The Only Pesto Recipe You'll Ever Need

I have only recently become a fan of vegetables. And by fan, I mean avid seeker-outer of fibrous plants at just about every meal. Three...

Read more >
The Science Behind Your Nighttime Food Cravings

The Science Behind Your Nighttime Food Cravings

You know the feeling. The sun has gone down and you’re winding down for the day. You had a delicious, nutrient-packed dinner. Maybe you’re relaxing...

Read more >

Visit our store

Gorgeous gear. Supplies shipped to your door. On-demand support from diabetes experts.

Shop Now