We abhor it, agonize over it and spend much energy and effort to diet and exercise it away. As we fret over fat, doctors are using advanced technology to help patients achieve better health by accurately and precisely measuring body fat.
The results might help decrease the risk of diabetes, cardiovascular disease and certain cancers.
Although the number on a scale might get many of us down, doctors believe where fat is located in our bodies, in addition to how much fat we actually have, impacts our health significantly.
“An important part of fat analysis is fat regionality,” said Dr. Tracie Miller, professor of pediatrics and epidemiology at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine. “Knowing where fat is stored and how much total fat one has can help steer a course of action.”
Miller explained: “Subcutaneous fat is fat under the skin. You know it because you can see it. Subcutaneous fat can show up as the dreaded jiggly cellulite, but it may not be as dangerous as the stuff you can’t see, visceral fat, which is mostly located in the belly.’’
Visceral fat, or belly fat, is much more likely to cause health problems, doctors say.
“If you have a large waist or belly, you have visceral fat. This type of fat storage surrounds organs like the liver, heart, lungs and the digestive tract. Visceral body fat is associated with increased risk of insulin resistance, which increases the risk of developing diabetes. Other complications from visceral fat include fatty liver, heart disease and stroke,” said Dr. Anaisys Ballesteros, D.O., a Baptist Health Primary Care physician.
“Women who have a waist circumference greater than 35 inches are at most risk. The waist circumference and waist-to-hip ratio are important measurements that can predict development of disease. So look at yourself in the mirror. If you have an apple shape, you are more likely to have visceral fat.”
While women typically accumulate a greater amount of subcutaneous fat on their thighs and buttocks before menopause, after menopause they tend to accumulate more visceral fat in and around their abdomen. Ballesteros said she is seeing an increase in visceral fat in the younger population, due to poor eating habits and sedentary lifestyles.
Body fat storage can not be measured on a scale. Other diagnostic tests don’t offer the complete picture or may underestimate body fat. Enter the DEXA Body Fat Scan (Dual Energy X-ray Absorptiometry). The DEXA Body Fat Scan uses two low-level X-ray beams to develop estimates of lean muscle mass, fat mass and exactly where the body stores fat and bone mineral density. DEXA scans were first developed to measure osteoporosis or bone loss primarily in women.
“By doing a DEXA assessment you can be proactive with your health,’’ Miller said. “When you measure body fat correctly, you can manage body fat effectively. If you are trying to lose weight and want to monitor body fat loss and muscle growth from exercise, the DEXA is an accurate measure of weight management and how effective your fitness program is. Knowing how much lean muscle mass you have is an important factor in determining your metabolism (rate at which you burn calories). The higher the amount of your lean body mass, the higher your metabolic rate. ”
The body mass index is the ratio of weight to height.
While the BMI is strongly correlated to body fat levels, it does not distinguish between body fat and lean body mass.
It is also not accurate in the elderly and does not take into account that two women can have the same BMI number but have different levels of body fat.
Body fat calipers, often used at gyms by personal trainers, measure the thickness of a pinch of skin and the fat beneath it in specific areas of the body.
Body fat percentages are based on these measurements.
The test is far from precise as it is subject to human error and it’s difficult to measure in individuals with a BMI greater than 35. While an MRI is an accurate test, its high cost is not a viable option for many people. A CT scan is also used to measure body fat, but the high level of radiation can be a concern.
Thus, doctors suggest getting the DEXA Body Fat Scan to give you the data to get on the right track.
To schedule a DEXA Body fat scan
▪ Baptist Health South Florida: Call 786-573-6000 to schedule an appointment with a physician, who will prescribe the test. Or visit https://baptisthealth.net.en/lp/pages/body-fataspx?cam=hp.
▪ University of Miami: Call 305-243-4000 or visit UHealthSystem.com to schedule an appointment with a physician who will prescribe the test.
The test does not involve any preparation, is noninvasive and takes about 20 minutes. Insurance coverage varies.