When I discovered this morning that my fat was talking to my brain, I experienced that mental ‘Ah ha!’ that signals a profound truth has been instantly internalized – one of those ‘light bulb’ moments Oprah Winfrey is always rattling on about. (And speaking of Oprah, I wonder what her fat says to her?)
According to a recent article in The New York Times, an associate professor of cell biology and medicine at Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York, a Dr. Philipp E. Scherer has been studying fat cells for more than a decade and quite apart from admiring them (which he does – he says they’re beautiful and he still enjoys looking at them after ten years… one can only hope he feels the same about his wife) his study has opened up flabby new vistas in understanding how fat affects not just our bodies, but our brains.
Dr Scherer has discovered that fat cells – once considered more or less an inert storage space for the unflattering effects of French fries – are actually an extremely impressive chemical delivery system, comparable to glands like the pituitary and thyroid, secreting hormones that have a powerful effect on our metabolism as well as our overall health and weight. Diabetes, heart disease and even cancer are being traced to this endocrinic source of so much that obsesses us in North America, as obesity rates rise to unprecedented levels. It’s pretty scarifying – to the World Health Organization if to no one else – as the statistics on victims of the side effects of piling too much on pile up at an alarming rate. (65% of adults are overweight – and 15% of children over the age of 6. Yikes.)
So, far from just sitting there and pushing our collective pants and sweatshirts evermore horizontally, those bastard cells are chattering away like teenagers on a party line, telling our brains heaven only knows what, as ‘keeping it all’ has now surpassed ‘having it all’ as the unconscious aim of the North American subconscious.
Personally, I’m not fat. I’m not skinny, but slenderish might be a fair assessment – certainly nothing north of normal. There’s a little genetic luck at work here, but mostly I figure, my figure stays pretty much the same because I work out at least 5 times a week. There’s nothing altruistic about my cardiovascular exercise, just the desire to continue my lifelong love affair with potatoes and bread, coupled with the need to maintain a flat, or at least a flatish belly. I’m not sure when or why I picked up this little personal quirk, but for all I care, my thighs could expand to soccer star proportions, my bottom could be hanging down, trailing behind me, brushing the daisies, but so long as my belly is flat all’s right with the world.
But focused as I am on my own avoirdupois, the pois of others troubles me not a titch. I quite like a man with a little meat on his bones - truth be told, I've always had a thing for Robbie Coltrane.
And clearly I’m not alone. I can’t remember where I read it (I always like to attribute where possible) but it was pointed out recently the surprising number of sitcoms that pair a fat man with a trim and attractive wife. There’s the show with the guy from The Full Monty (who has been inexplicably saddled with a somewhat less than believable American accent) that Jim Belushi show that teams the actor up with a little blonde babe, a soon to be seen new sitcom starring John Goodman and the wonderful Jean Smart, and of course the original sex bomb Jackie Gleason with mate and regularly threatened moon unit Audrey Meadows.
Relax. I’m not going to go all “Why can’t there be shows with fat women and skinny adoring men? Eh? Why?” (Though it is interesting to note that the one show that starred a fat woman in a successful marriage, (Roseanne) had her partnered with a man even heavier than she. Apparently reality has about as much stretch to it as a pair of skintight jeans.)
But chubby chasing aside, the more I learn about fat – garrulous or otherwise - the less able I am to slough off the wider (no pun intended) implications of too many pounds in unhealthy places.
That’s the other thing about fat – it not only matters that the pounds appear – but where they land, how they expand and even what sort they turn out to be.
The apple versus pear body shape argument still hold true; apples, who store their fat in their bendy place are at potentially greater risk than those who pack it on south of the equator in their hips and thighs. In the past we thought the fruit fight was just an inexplicable indicator issue, but it turns out there’s a type of fat known as visceral fat, that lurks inside the abdomen posing a much greater health risk than the subcutaneous fat that sits out front in the cheap seats. It’s also wilier, remaining unaffected by liposuction, requiring serious diet and exercise to shift - the twin demons of an increasingly quick fix society.
It remains unclear why visceral fat is more dangerous than the common or garden type, but scientists suspect it may be more metabolically active and therefore more toxic to organs that regulate insulin and cholesterol levels.
Tougher to get at, more toxic than its subcutaneous cousin, able to turn overweight adults into hospitalized patients, visceral fat is Superfat – the worst kind of fat around.
Lucky me then – who has been fixated on keeping my abdominal fat at bay for a lifetime. But then there’s my sister – a roundy-shaped girl who took after our spherical father rather than our straight up and down mother - in her late thirties diagnosed with Type 2 Diabetes and never off the merry-go-round of diet plans and low fat food – measuring carbs and calories like a mad scientist in a muumuu. I worry about her. A lot.
I still don’t know what my fat cells are saying to my brain, but I’m glad they’re only talking. I hope for both my sister and others similarly afflicted that they get a handle on the type of fat they sport and discover better ways of paring it down before it’s too late.
The way I figure, it’s not over until the fat cells actually sing.