Behind the exercise and diet

Alice Yu

Those who’ve tried year after year to lose the extra pounds know that getting into shape isn’t easy. It’s definitely not a piece of cake — just mentioning cake challenges the very fragile self-control. In between avoiding the junk food, embracing a balanced diet and getting that heart rate into the target heart rate zone, there’s an uphill struggle to stay on track, but another boulder might be blocking the road to that toned body. Rarely mentioned and overshadowed by tips to exercise and eat healthy, metabolism plays a bigger role in maintaining a healthy weight than many people give it credit for.
“When I’m sitting doing nothing, that’s my resting metabolic rate and as far as my knowledge goes, that’s something that is genetically determined. That is how many calories I’m using to do my daily functions,” University of Missouri-Columbia Hospital associate professor of clinical medicine in the Endocrinology department Dr. Uzma Khan said. “If you’re not balancing the consumption of your calories, so you’re output of calories is not balancing your input of calories, you get an imbalance, which results in a bad balance in your body, causing the metabolic syndrome.”
One blaring alarm for the metabolic syndrome is visceral fat, or what’s commonly known as the “beer belly”. Primarily caused by inactivity and obesity, metabolic syndrome can lead to high blood pressure, high cholesterol and also diabetes. Behind the inactivity and obesity, like many other diseases, is an imbalance in hormones, specifically leptons and adipocytokines.
“The fat cells that we always think of, we don’t think of them as being active cells. We think of them as little things full of fat, but they are actually hormonally active cells,” Dr. Khan said. “The fat cell is actually a metabolically active, hormone producing cell. It produces something called adipocytokines and then there’s another very important hormone that you need to know that’s called lepton. Lepton is a hormone that actually goes and works on your brain. So as your body fat increases, there’s an imbalance of these very hormones, the leptons and the adipocytokines and then they lead to an imbalance which causes the metabolic syndrome.”
Despite the importance metabolism plays into keeping a healthy body, many students don’t get adequate enough information. CPS health courses only cover it briefly in the fitness unit before moving onto another subject.
“We talk about what your basal metabolic rate is and how that affects how you burn calories. We really don’t talk about [bad metabolism]. It just never has really been part of it. No particular reason why it’s not been. We talk about it as we talk about other things with fitness.,” CPS physical education and health coordinator Christi Hopper said. “It’s not something that we’re opposed to, it’s just never really been anything that we brought up.”
But Dr. Khan says that metabolism and diabetes is a problem that needs to be addressed now. With rising rates of obesity in children, rates of metabolic syndrome and diabetes are climbing as well. In 2012, 9.3 percent of children had diabetes, compared to 8.3 percent in 2010, according to For metabolic syndrome, troubling statistics began showing up as far back as 2005. In a report from the University of Kansas, researchers found that of 375 second and third graders, five percent had metabolic syndrome and 45 percent had risk factors for it.
“I think it’s important for young people to know that there is this condition called the metabolic syndrome which includes increase in fat around your waist area, blood pressure, cholesterol problems and increased insulin resistance, because it puts you at risk for diabetes and heart disease,” Dr. Khan said. “You don’t want it and we’re seeing it in young children. You’ve all inherited some medical problems that you don’t know of yet. You all are going to have some type of lifestyle that may not be under 100 percent your control in the percent, but if you don’t know what a healthy lifestyle is and if you don’t apply it starting now, you’ll be in a bad shape later on. We know that lifestyle modifications help, we know there’s a genetic component, so I don’t tell my patients, ‘it’s because you’re eating too much’. I tell them, ‘this runs in the family, but there are environmental factors that you can modify.’”
For Gabrielle Jones, the metabolism of her family hasn’t always been in the best situation and so understanding the genetic component of bad metabolism encouraged her to establish a healthy lifestyle.
“For a lot of people, when you’re young it goes really fast and you can metabolize a lot of junk food and a lot of people eat junk food, but in my family, by the time you turn 20, it starts to hit you,” junior Gabrielle Jones said. “In my family, when you’re older, your body can’t metabolize as fast and you start gaining weight and usually weight gains at the hips and it’s not a pretty cycle.”
Along with genetics, gender also impacts metabolic levels. Women tend to have lower risks of developing the unhealthy visceral fat, a trait that may be because of estrogen.
“In women, the estrogen makes your fat go to under skin and then other parts of the body, but that type of fat is not the one that causes the imbalance of the adipocytokines,” Dr. Khan said. “The type of fat that does it is the one that’s called visceral fat which is the one in the belly. That one is more the cause of hormonal imbalance and the suspicion is that estrogen prevents women from getting that — unless something else is going on — which is why after they go through menopause, and they start getting their visceral fat. Because the estrogen levels have gone low, their risk for heart disease and everything else starts getting to where it is for men.”
In the hunt for more information on metabolic syndrome, new research suggests that those who are affected may have different bacteria in their stomach that process foods differently than those who don’t have metabolic syndrome or diabetes. This new discovery only uncovers a little bit more to the mystery behind metabolism and diabetes.
“There’s the genetics, there’s the environmental factors. The environmental factors include easy access to cheap, excess calories, decrease in burning of the calories, but maybe there’s more to the story,” Dr. Khan said. “Maybe those bacteria are the the problem. Maybe chemicals in our environment are not allowing our body to deal with everything. It’s a jigsaw puzzle. We have a few pieces, but we’re just starting out.”
By Alice Yu