If it’s good enough for rats…

In late 2010, a team of biochemists in Queensland found that chia seeds burn belly fat in obese rats and led to the break down of fatty deposits around the liver, heart and abdomen. Their findings were published in the Journal of Nutritional Biochemistry in April 2011.

Says team leader USQ (University of Southern Qld) biochemist Professor Lindsay Brown, “Chia is the highest plant-based source of omega 3 polyunsaturated fatty acids, and also contains dietary fibre and protein. The accumulation of abdominal fat near vital organs is a major contributor to heart and liver disease, so the potential health benefits of chia seeds to people are significant.”

Two groups of fat rats were used for this study. One group of rats was given a high carbohydrate, high fat diet supplemented with 5% chia seeds for the 8 weeks. Another group was fed a high carbohydrate, high fat diet with no chia seeds.

The study found that the rats who ate chia seeds had improved insulin sensitivity and glucose tolerance, and reduced heart and liver inflammation. Their abdominal fat had also been distributed to other parts of the body, making the fat less dangerous to the rat’s vital organs.

Professor Brown further says that while findings are in the beginning stages, and testing still being carried out on lab rats, the potential benefit that chia burns belly fat is great news for people who have had a build up of fat storage around vital organs and around the abdomen.

THE QUESTION IS: WHERE’S THE FAT?

Concerning life-threatening diseases, where your fat is deposited could be a more important factor than the amount of body fat you have as measured by the Body Mass Index (BMI). The most dangerous places of fat accumulation are around your heart, liver, and abdomen. This is the reason why the above mentioned study is very significant.

HEART FAT

Fat deposited around the heart (pericardial fat) could be even more fatal than fat around the body. This is according to a study from Wake Forest University Baptist Medical Center in the US, sponsored by the US National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. “Even a thin person can have fat around the heart,” says Jingzhong Ding, M.D., lead author of the research.

Their study shows that pericardial fat may promote inflammation in the heart arteries which could lead to death due to coronary heart disease. It has also been implicated in sudden cardiac death (SCD), a common cause of death in thousands of seemingly healthy young adults.

SCD is the leading cause of death in Australia, killing an estimate of 33,000 people each year. In the US, it is estimated that a sudden cardiac death (SCD) occurs every minute. Alarmingly, a growing number of cases happens to adults below the age of 45 who have not shown any symptoms of heart disease. Fewer than 5% survive.

LIVER FAT

The accumulation of fat (triglyceride) in the liver could lead to serious inflammation of the liver. Inflammation can destroy liver cells (hepatocellular necrosis) which can lead to scarring of the liver (cirrhosis), the third most common cause of death in developed countries in people aged between 45 and 65.

This serious, irreversible condition may be caused by alcohol intake. However, there is also the the condition called non-alcoholic fatty liver which may be caused by weight gain, obesity, diabetes, metabolic syndrome, certain drugs (e.g. prednisone, acetaminophen, salicylates, etc), bariatric surgery, malnutrition, genetic factors and the hepatitis virus. The US–based Center for Disease Control guesstimates that in developed countries, 20% of the adult population are already suffering from some kind of liver disease due to fat deposits in the liver.

ABDOMINAL (VISCERAL) FAT

Abdominal fat locations

Visceral abdominal fat or belly fat (contributing to the apple body shape) is the fat surrounding the abdominal organs and chest cavity. This fat is more dangerous than the subcutaneous fat which lies just under the skin, or the fat that accumulates around the hips (contributing to the pear body shape). Several studies indicate that visceral fat is most strongly correlated with risk factors such as insulin resistance, which sets the stage for type 2 diabetes.

Studies supported by MRI (magnetic resonance imaging)  suggests that the measurement of waist circumference reflects visceral fat, and is a more important factor than BMI to measure health risk. As in the case of heart fat, a person with a healthy BMI could have high visceral abdominal fat, and may not know that they are at risk of developing certain life threatening diseases.

One reason excess visceral fat is so harmful is that they are located near the liver.  Substances released by visceral fat, including free fatty acids travel to the liver, where they can add to liver fat, and affect liver function.

In the liver, they affect insulin resistance which means that your body’s muscle and liver cells don’t respond adequately to normal levels of insulin, the pancreatic hormone that carries glucose into the body’s cells. Glucose levels in the blood rise, heightening the risk for diabetes. Together, insulin resistance, high blood glucose, excess abdominal fat, unfavorable cholesterol levels (including high triglycerides), and high blood pressure constitute the metabolic syndrome, a major risk factor for heart disease and stroke.

Excess belly fat has also been linked to a disturbing 52% increase in colorectal cancer risk in women and the development of high blood pressure, even with a low BMI, according to a 10-year study of Chinese adults published in the August 2006 American Journal of Hypertension. Finally, a study presented at the 2005 annual meeting of the Society for Neuroscience found that older people with bigger bellies had worse memory and less verbal fluency, even after taking diabetes into account.