When it comes to protecting from brain disease, we know a few rules that’ll help us age gracefully: exercise regularly and go easy on the sugar and fats. But a new study has linked the natural fat deposits in female bodies as a key protector against brain disease.
Not all fat is bad
Like avocados, not all fats are bad. We know this to be true when looking at our diets: high-fat diets that include pizza and excess animal fats tend to have higher negative outcomes than a diet high in olive oil, fatty seeds and nuts and other plant-based fats.
But a new study shows that the propensity for women to collect fat in places like their hips, butt and backs of the arms (called subcutaneous fat), could protect against brain disease like dementia and stroke. Males, on the other hand, store fat around major organs in the abdominal region, called visceral adiposity, which promotes inflammation.
Before, the differences in immune response to brain disease were thought to be down to hormonal discrepancies, but this study offers a new perspective. In ScienceDaily, Alexis M. Stranahan, PhD, neuroscientist in the Department of Neuroscience and Regenerative Medicine at the Medical College of Georgia at Augusta University, said that “When people think about protection in women, their first thought is oestrogen. But we need to get beyond the kind of simplistic idea that every sex difference involves hormone differences and hormone exposure.”
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Where you store fat matters
The study scientists started by inducing obesity in rats, then observing the differences in fat distribution around the body in the males and females. They then noticed that where female rats stored fat correlated with protection against inflammation. They also performed liposuction on the rats before inducing obesity, and were then studied after taking on a high-fat diet, which is known to cause inflammation in the body. The elimination of the fat meant that the rats had less protection against inflammation.
“When we took subcutaneous fat (fat stored under the skin) out of the equation, all of a sudden the females’ brains start to exhibit inflammation the way that male brains do, and the females gained more visceral fat (fat around the abdominal area),” Stranahan says. “It kind of shunted everything toward that other storage location.” It turns out where the female rats stored fat correlated with a higher level of protection against inflammation, particularly where brain disease is concerned, author’s noted.
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So, what are the implications for your health?
Without the liposuction surgery, female rats on a high-fat diet only displayed inflammation similar to the level of male rats after menopause, showing that the fat storage was protective in females before this period. It’s notable that even after liposuction, a high-fat diet still correlated with high levels of inflammation, so stick to a whole foods diet.
Stranahan notes that this likely has implications for using the BMI as a benchmark for overall health. “We can’t just say obesity. We have to start talking about where the fat is. That is the critical element here,” Stranahan says. A more accurate reading? Looking at the hip to waist ratio, she says.
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The bottom line: where fat is stored links to inflammation in the brain. Visceral fat promotes inflammation while subcutaneous fat acts as protection, and high-fat diets are not a good idea to take on (kinda, sorta duh), since they promote inflammation.