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Students learn to manage deadly fat

By Jessica Ameling Guest Reporter

It’s time to throw out that scale and bust out the tape measure. All fat is not created equal.

That beer belly everyone jokes about during college could actually lead to dangerous health problems down the road. And it’s all due to

visceral fat.

Visceral fat is what accumulates around one’s abdomen, potentially harming the major organs it surrounds. According to the American Heart Association, people with excess visceral fat are at an increased risk for heart disease, diabetes, high cholesterol and hypertension, just to name a few.

But why should college students worry about visceral fat at a time when heart disease sounds as foreign as retirement?

Because “once you get it on, it’s very hard to get off,” said Dr. Glenn Egelman, director and physician in chief of the Student Health Center. “One of the prime times of life where people put on weight is in college. Classically people that start issues with weight start in college.”

And exactly where the weight is put on makes all the difference. People with apple-shaped bodies (middle-heavy) are at a much greater risk for health problems than people with pear-shaped bodies (bottom-heavy).

“If it’s in your legs, it’s not good, you need to lose it, but it’s not life threatening,” said Kelly Birsen, a public health graduate student and personal trainer at the Student Recreation Center.

The Obesity Society recently published a study evaluating 1,010 healthy men and women. It found that waist circumference is a better indicator of health problems than both body mass index (the ratio of height to weight) and body fat percentage.

But those love handles your girlfriend pinches aren’t visceral fat – that’s subcutaneous fat, or fat just under the skin. Visceral fat is so hazardous because it’s deeper; it sits nice and cozy next to your vital organs and you can’t grab it. Visceral fat is more active than subcutaneous fat and releases harmful fatty acids into the bloodstream right next to the portal vein which leads into the liver. When the fatty acids build up in the liver it leads to insulin resistance, which in turn can lead to Type 2 diabetes. Also, insulin resistance, excess belly fat, high cholesterol and blood pressure combine to cause metabolic syndrome, a major risk factor for heart disease and stroke.

Evaluating Yourself

So how can you tell if you have too much? Doctors can accurately measure visceral fat with expensive magnetic resonance imaging, but these machines aren’t available for routine checkups. So a tape measure is the next best thing. According to The Obesity Society, men with a waist circumference greater than 40 inches and women with a waist circumference of 35 inches or more are at risk.

Unfortunately, some people are predisposed to carry weight around their middle.

“If you look at yourself and look at your mother, look at the way she’s shaped and the way you’re shaped,” said Daria Blachowski-Dreyer, University Nutrition Initiatives manager. “If you put on weight, usually it goes in the same areas.”

And many college students see those areas start bulging during their first years of freedom. Blachowski-Dreyer said she usually sees the biggest weight gain in freshmen and sophomores.

“When you’re at home you’re limited to what’s in your mother’s refrigerator and when you come to our place we have walk-ins,” she said. “People lose sight of portion size. We try to maintain appropriate portion size, but then people accuse us of not serving enough food.”

Add to the mix late night snacking, erratic schedules, stress and less physical activity and many college students begin setting themselves up for health complications early in their lives.

Seth liames, junior sports management major said he has never heard of visceral fat and doesn’t think many of his peers worry about carrying around a little extra weight around their middles.

“They probably won’t worry until they get in their jobs and have a family and it’s too late,” he said.

Blachowski-Dreyer had similar thoughts.

“It’s really hard to talk to someone your age about obesity because to them I’m old,” she said. “They can’t see the big picture that health habits you develop today have an effect on your lifespan.”

But there’s no better time than now to begin warding off visceral fat.

The Good News

Unlike those pesky love handles, visceral fat can be easily reduced with one simple word: exercise. Although you can’t lose weight from one specific part of your body, or “spot reduce,” a study done at Queen’s University in Ontario showed a significant decrease in abdominal fat when participants were put on an exercise program. Another study by Duke University Medical Center and East Carolina University showed that people put on a moderate workout program, equivalent to a brisk 30 minute walk six times a week for eight months, stopped the accumulation of visceral fat. And subjects put on a more intense program, the equivalent of jogging 20 miles per week decreased visceral fat by 6.9 percent.

This new research stresses losing inches around your waist instead of becoming a slave to the scale. If your pants fit better, it’s a good sign you’re losing visceral fat.

Birsen said almost all the students who come to her for personal training want to do just that – lose belly fat. And she has one consistent answer.

“Cardio program. Just burn more calories and start a strength training program,” she said. The obvious second part to the equation is you diet. Along with portion control, Blachowski-Dreyer cited studies that show eating five to six small meals a day helps keep your metabolism up, burning fat all day. And she warned students to watch what they eat late at night. Think that huge slice of Myles pizza washed down with a cold beer.

“Eating before you go to bed is like filling up your car with gas and then parking it in the garage and not going anywhere,” she said. “I usually tell people two to three hours before you go to bed you should stop eating.”

No Better Time

Although obesity rates are growing at an alarming rate, currently 66 percent of Americans are overweight or obese, overall Egelman things BGSU students are doing better than the rest of the nation is controlling their weight and avoid excess abdominal fat.

“The BGSU students overall have pretty healthy lifestyles habits,” he said. “We have a phenomenal rec center, active wellness programs and a tradition of students involved in sports and activities.”

And that’s good news for the future.

“In college you can start will healthy habits that will last the rest of your lifetime,” Egelman said. “It’s much more difficult to change the habits when you get older.”

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