According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), obesity and diabetes have been on the rise in recent years, with nearly 42% of the U.S. population categorized as obese and the incidence of severe diabetes increasing from 4.7% to 9.2% between 2017 and 2020. As scientists struggle to understand and combat these diseases, a new study from the University of Virginia (UVA) has shed light on the complex relationship between belly fat and type 2 diabetes.
Traditionally, doctors have linked fat around the waist to an increased risk of developing type 2 diabetes. However, the UVA study challenges this notion, showing that certain genes responsible for belly fat accumulation may also offer protection against the disease. Lead researcher Mete Civelek of UVA’s Center for Public Health Genomics explains, “In this case, people who would normally be at risk for cardiovascular disease and diabetes due to obesity are actually protected from the negative consequences of their obesity.”
The study identified five specific genes associated with abdominal obesity that also act as protective factors against type 2 diabetes. This suggests that people with these genes may have more belly fat but a significantly lower risk of developing diabetes. Thus, Civelek suggests that physicians consider genetics along with waist and hip measurements when assessing risk for metabolic syndrome, a condition associated with an increased risk of diabetes, heart attacks and strokes.
It is important to note that the study results do not mean that belly fat is harmless, as it remains a significant risk factor for cardiovascular disease. In addition, only a small percentage of people have a specific genetic code for the benefits of belly fat. Nevertheless, the findings provide new insights into the role of genetics in the development of obesity-related diseases and may pave the way for future genetic solutions to diabetes.
Civelek plans to expand the study by examining more women and individuals with different genetic backgrounds to identify additional genes associated with metabolically healthy obesity. He hopes the findings will lead to the identification of therapeutic targets for treating the disease.
The study, published in the journal eLife, adds to the growing body of evidence regarding metabolically healthy obesity and emphasizes the importance of considering genetics when assessing risk for the disease.