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When it comes to disease risk, having an appleshape is less desirable than a pear shape, where fat is concentrated more around the thighs and buttocks. Extra abdominal fat—especially the stuff that surrounds the organs, called visceral fat—increases the risk of developing insulin resistance, which is a forerunner to diabetes. The fat that lies just below the skin’s surface (subcutaneous fat), doesn’t seem to be as strongly linked to diabetes risk.
In an effort to better understand what contributes to abdominal fat, researchers involved in the Insulin Resistance and Atherosclerosis Family Study (IRAS) asked 1,114 Hispanic Americans and African Americans (average age 42 years at the beginning of the study) about lifestyle aspects including dietary patterns, smoking history, and physical activity. The participants’ height, weight, and abdominal fat mass (calculated by CT scan) were measured at the beginning of the study and five years later.
Researchers found that the people who ate more soluble fiber and engaged in regular exercise were less likely to gain visceral abdominal fat over the years, regardless of changes in BMI (body mass index). For each 10-gram-per-day increase in soluble fiber, the rate of visceral fat accumulation went down by almost 4%.This effect was most pronounced in African American men. Soluble fiber didn’t seem to affect the way subcutaneous fat was deposited around the body.
Exercise also helped keep visceral fat accumulation down over the years. Engaging in vigorous physical activity (defined as participating in exercise that makes you sweat, or increases the heart rate or breathing rate) one to four times per week had a 7.4% decrease in the rate of visceral fat accumulation and a 3.6% decrease in subcutaneous fat accumulation.
Current smokers tended to have slightly less accumulation of subcutaneous fat, but smoking status didn’t affect how much visceral fat the people accumulated.
“Although the fiber–obesity relationship has been extensively studied, the relationship between fiber and specific fat depots has not,” commented the study’s authors. “Our study is valuable because it provides specific information on how dietary fiber, specifically soluble fiber, may affect weight accumulation, specifically through abdominal fat deposits.”
Adopting a new way of eating and committing to a regular exercise routine can seem overwhelming, but little changes can add up to big health benefits over time.