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Extra Weight Increases Risk of Heart Disease in South Asians

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Heart Disease related image Photo: Getty Images

Unless you are one of those really lucky women who were born with the “skinny” gene, then you’ve probably fought the weight gain battle at least once or twice in your lifetime. Those few extra pounds around the tummy do more than just make our jeans impossible to button – they also increase our risk of some fairly serious health conditions such as Type 2 diabetes, stroke, cholesterol, breast and colon cancer, and cardiovascular or heart disease.

While belly fat is certainly bothersome, the real culprit for most of us lies in visceral fat. Unlike belly fat which we can see and touch, visceral fat is deep fat that plants itself firm in the spaces around your internal organs. Most women who’ve reached that “certain age” – you know, the age where we live in a land of a personal summer – are well familiar with excess belly and visceral fat brought on by menopause and how it increases our risk of heart disease.

Now, researchers at McMaster University believe that weight gain isn’t created equal for all ethnicities. Led by Dr. Sonia Anand, researchers found that while weight gain simply causes some to be able to pinch-an-inch around the belly, in others it goes straight to the internal organs, causing dangerous visceral fat and disproportionately increasing their risks of obesity related diseases, including heart disease.

In particular, researchers found that in comparison to Caucasians and other ethnicities, South Asians are more prone to develop the type of fat that surrounds the internal organs. These findings build on an earlier study conducted by McMaster and the Population Health Research Institute. In the earlier study, researchers found that persons of Indian descent were more prone to heart disease risk factors such as obesity, Type 2 diabetes, and low levels of good cholesterol, even when their body mass index or BMI was comparable to those of Caucasians.

Anand indicated that the reason South Asians tend to develop fat around their internal organs sooner than other ethnic groups is because South Asians have “less space to store fat below the skin than white Caucasians.” (McMaster 1.) Because there is less space, additional or excess fat goes straight to the available spaces around the internal organs causing the unseen visceral fat, which in turn increases their risk of heart and other obesity related conditions.

Currently, approximately 25 percent of all Asian deaths in the US alone are due to heart disease. This study is significant because it identified a subgroup for which a normal BMI might not be telling the full picture with respect to their heart health. The director of the Canadian Obesity Network and co-author of the McMaster study, Dr. Arya Sharma, recommends that persons of South Asian descent be screened for both heart disease and Type 2 diabetes at lower BMI levels than their Caucasian counterparts.

The McMaster study was sponsored by the Heart and Stroke Foundation of Ontario, Canada. The results were published in PLoS ONE – see journal reference below for more information.

Heart Disease Facts, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 21 Dec 2010

Belly Fat, The Mayo Clinic, 02 Aug 2011 http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/medical/IM03913

McMaster University (2011, July 29). Packing on pounds riskier for South Asians, say researchers. ScienceDaily. Retrieved August 2, 2011

Journal reference:
1. Sonia S. Anand, Mark A. Tarnopolsky, Shirya Rashid, Karleen M. Schulze, Dipika Desai, Andrew Mente, Sandy Rao, Salim Yusuf, Hertzel C. Gerstein, Arya M. Sharma. Adipocyte Hypertrophy, Fatty Liver and Metabolic Risk Factors in South Asians: The Molecular Study of Health and Risk in Ethnic Groups (mol-SHARE). PLoS ONE, 2011; 6 (7): e22112 DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0022112 http://www.plosone.org/article/info%3Adoi%2F10.1371%2Fjournal.pone.0022112

Reviewed August 3, 2011
by Michele Blacksberg R.N.
Edited by Jody Smith

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We value and respect our HERWriters' experiences, but everyone is different. Many of our writers are speaking from personal experience, and what's worked for them may not work for you. Their articles are not a substitute for medical advice, although we hope you can gain knowledge from their insight.

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