Israeli-led research team says curbing liver fat is key to reducing obesity risk

Study using MRIs finds getting rid of fat in the liver, pancreas and around the heart more important to long-term health than shedding stomach fat; recommends Mediterranean diet

Illustrative image of food. (Lisovskaya; iStock by Getty Images)
Illustrative image of food. (Lisovskaya; iStock by Getty Images)

A new study by an Israeli-led team of researchers suggested that reducing liver fat rather than just losing weight is key to minimizing the long-term health risks tied to obesity.

The study, published in the Journal of Hepatology, used magnetic resource imaging (MRI) to track different types of fat in the body, while also examining how different types of diets affected fat deposits over time, according to a press release this week from Ben-Gurion University of the Negev.

Comparing a low-carb Mediterranean diet to a low-fat one, the study found the former had a more pronounced effect of getting rid of fat in the liver, pancreas and around the heart, even though the overall weight loss was similar. The researchers said moderate physical exercise also helps get rid of visceral fat, which is stored in the stomach.

The research team recorded a 30 percent drop in the levels of liver fat in those on the Mediterranean diet, which it said was key to curbing obesity-related health risks, such as diabetes and cardiovascular disease. The study also recorded a decrease of 11% in fat around the heart and a 25% reduction in visceral fat, as well as moderate weight loss.

The researchers said the study indicated that despite past beliefs, shedding liver fat is a better indicator of long-term health than getting rid of visceral fat.

The study included 300 overweight people who were put on the two type different diets and tracked their health changes over a period of 18 months. Full-body MRIs were used to check fat levels throughout the body before, during and after the study.

Illustrative: The MRI room at the Shaare Zedek Medical Center in Jerusalem. (Flash90)

Ben-Gurion University Professor Iris Shai, who led the team of scientists that included researchers from Harvard and Germany’s Leipzig University, said the study’s findings could help shape medical protocols by tailoring them to address different types of fat.

“Healthy nutrition, while also maintaining consistent, moderate weight loss, has a much more dramatic impact on levels of body fat related to diabetes, heart disease and cardio-vascular disease than we previously thought,” she said in a statement from the university.

A researcher from Soroka University Medical Center, which along with the Negev Nuclear Research Center also assisted in the study, said the findings gave further backing to the effectiveness of MRI technology in measuring liver fat levels.

“At the same time the development of similar technologies that could one day present alternatives to taking liver biopsies from patients and will allow repeat measurements in order to adjudicate a particular obese patient’s level of health risk, as well as his/her response to treatment,” Ilan Shelef, professor at Ben-Gurion University, said.

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