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Osteoporosis Risk from Belly Fat

Most women naturally put on a few pounds at menopause, but new research says its highly important just where it lands.


Being overweight or pleasantly plump, or cuddly, or however you describe it has in the past been seen as giving a woman protection from developing osteoporosis, and that excess body fat actually protected against bone loss.  Put down that éclair right now because it turns out not to be true according to a study presented at the annual meeting of the Radiological Society of North America (RSNA) who came to exactly the opposite conclusion: that having too much internal abdominal fat may, in fact, have a damaging effect on bone health.

Assessing this as a new risk factor was the study’s lead author, Miriam A. Bredella, M.D., a radiologist at Massachusetts General Hospital and assistant professor of radiology at Harvard Medical School in Boston.  Obesity in itself is of course a health problem worldwide, particularly in the West, with approximately 72 million American adults considered obese: this is defined as having a body mass index (BMI) of 30 or more.

Just as not all snow is the same when it comes to disrupting the trains, not all body fat is identical either. Subcutaneous fat lies just below the skin, and visceral or intra-abdominal fat is located deep under the muscle tissue in the abdominal cavity. Genetics, diet and exercise are all contributors to the level of visceral fat that is stored in the body and it is considered particularly dangerous, because in previous studies it has been associated with increased risk for heart disease.

I should say upfront that this is a small study as they only evaluated the abdominal subcutaneous, visceral and total fat, as well as bone marrow fat and bone mineral density, in 50 premenopausal women with a mean BMI of 30.   However, the imaging revealed that women with more visceral fat had increased bone marrow fat and decreased bone mineral density but there was no significant correlation between either subcutaneous fat or total fat and bone marrow fat or bone mineral density.

If you tend to put on your weight around your hips, as opposed to your belly, then aesthetically you may not like it, but it not as detrimental to bone health as having more superficial fat or fat around the hips.

While osteopororosis bone loss is more common in women, men are certainly not exempt and so the research team is currently conducting a study to determine whether belly fat is also a risk factor for bone loss in men.