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Open Access Research article

Do obese but metabolically normal women differ in intra-abdominal fat and physical activity levels from those with the expected metabolic abnormalities? A cross-sectional study

Louise Hayes1*, Mark S Pearce1, Michael J Firbank2, Mark Walker3, Roy Taylor3 and Nigel C Unwin4

Author Affiliations

1 Institute of Health and Society, Newcastle University, Newcastle-upon-Tyne, UK

2 Institute for Ageing and Health, Newcastle University, Newcastle-upon-Tyne, UK

3 Institute of Cellular Medicine, Newcastle University, Newcastle-upon-Tyne, UK

4 Faculty of Medical Sciences, University of the West Indies, Bridgetown, Barbados

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BMC Public Health 2010, 10:723  doi:10.1186/1471-2458-10-723

Published: 24 November 2010

Abstract

Background

Obesity remains a major public health problem, associated with a cluster of metabolic abnormalities. However, individuals exist who are very obese but have normal metabolic parameters. The aim of this study was to determine to what extent differences in metabolic health in very obese women are explained by differences in body fat distribution, insulin resistance and level of physical activity.

Methods

This was a cross-sectional pilot study of 39 obese women (age: 28-64 yrs, BMI: 31-67 kg/m2) recruited from community settings. Women were defined as 'metabolically normal' on the basis of blood glucose, lipids and blood pressure. Magnetic Resonance Imaging was used to determine body fat distribution. Detailed lifestyle and metabolic profiles of participants were obtained.

Results

Women with a healthy metabolic profile had lower intra-abdominal fat volume (geometric mean 4.78 l [95% CIs 3.99-5.73] vs 6.96 l [5.82-8.32]) and less insulin resistance (HOMA 3.41 [2.62-4.44] vs 6.67 [5.02-8.86]) than those with an abnormality. The groups did not differ in abdominal subcutaneous fat volume (19.6 l [16.9-22.7] vs 20.6 [17.6-23.9]). A higher proportion of those with a healthy compared to a less healthy metabolic profile met current physical activity guidelines (70% [95% CIs 55.8-84.2] vs 25% [11.6-38.4]). Intra-abdominal fat, insulin resistance and physical activity make independent contributions to metabolic status in very obese women, but explain only around a third of the variance.

Conclusion

A sub-group of women exists who are metabolically normal despite being very obese. Differences in fat distribution, insulin resistance, and physical activity level are associated with metabolic differences in these women, but account only partially for these differences. Future work should focus on strategies to identify those obese individuals most at risk of the negative metabolic consequences of obesity and on identifying other factors that contribute to metabolic status in obese individuals.