The CDC estimates that over 29 million Americans live with diabetes, and an additional 86 million are living with prediabetes (higher than normal blood sugar, but not enough for a diabetes diagnosis). In 2013, diabetes was the 7th most common cause of American deaths, and is the primary cause of adult-onset blindness, lower limb amputations, and kidney failure.
Obesity is among many other risk factors for diabetes, but it’s not the only cause. In fact, a 2012 study found that 12% of those diagnosed with diabetes were at “normal” weight and body fat. New research out of the University of Utah Department of Nutrition and Integrative Physiology has shed light on what could be a primary contributing factor to obesity among people of a healthy weight. The cause: a toxic form of fat.
There is a class of fat metabolites known as ceramides, which plays a vital role in a variety of cellular functions. Ceramides affect the way your body processes and distributes nutrients, affect insulin response, and even control calorie burning. Excessive build-up of ceramides in the fat tissue can stop the tissue from working properly. This can cause the fat to no longer be stored in the fat tissue, but sends it to the blood vessels or heart. The presence of excessive fat in the cardiovascular system can lead to peripheral tissue damage.
The researchers injected ceramides into the fat cells of mice, which caused the mice to develop a resistance to insulin. At the same time, calorie burning decreased significantly. The mice with higher ceramides were more likely to develop both fatty liver disease and diabetes, while mice with fewer ceramides didn’t develop insulin resistance during the study.
How do the levels of ceramides in our body reach the “excessive” point? For many people, it’s all about genetics. When we consume excess calories (both carbs and fats), our bodies convert those calories into stored fat. However, some bodies produce more ceramides than others. Even if people aren’t fully overweight or obese, their genetics are telling their body to turn fat into ceramides, which can lead to insulin resistance, reduced calorie burn, and ultimately diabetes.
Ceramide cell membrane lipid, molecular model. Atoms are represented as spheres with conventional color coding: hydrogen (white), carbon (grey), oxygen (red), nitrogen (blue).
Further studies into the effects of ceramides will hopefully provide a better understanding of how to prevent these fat cells from increasing diabetes risk—both among normal weight people and the overweight and obese. The University of Utah researchers hope that more research could lead to a preventive measure that could stop the synthesis of ceramides and reduce the risk of type 2 diabetes and other metabolic conditions.