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Food/Nutrition Columnist Author: Jo-Ann Heslin, MA, RD, CDN, Food & Nutrition Columnist - Last Updated: Sep 7, 2017 - 10:06:33 PM

Belly Fat May Not Be So Bad After All

By Jo-Ann Heslin, MA, RD, CDN, Food & Nutrition Columnist -
Jun 10, 2017 - 7:00:54 AM

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( - Muffin top, beer belly, love handles are names we give to the irritating roll of fat that many of us carry around our midsection. Omentum is its medical term, referring to the sheet of fat that stretches over your intestines, liver and stomach like a huge elastic apron. It can range in size from slightly over 10 ounces to more than 4 pounds.   

In the past we have been cautioned that excess belly fat can increases the risk for heart disease, insulin resistance and type 2 diabetes. We accumulate belly fat due to overeating and stress. When we are stressed the hormone cortisol is released which helps your body mount a stress response, but unfortunately it can also leads to weight gain when produced in excess. 

Besides secreting hormones related to obesity, researchers are finding that belly fat may be an important immune organ, serving as the first line of defense against toxins and infection. As early as 1910 an English physician, Rutherford Morrison, referred to the omentum as the abdominal policeman because of its anti-inflammatory effects. He believed that it shifted around the abdomen to areas were mischief was brewing. We know now that his theory was not completely accurate but nonetheless belly fat does aid in reducing inflammation.

The omentum’s immune properties come from groups of small, white filters, known as milky spots that are located among the fat cells. Belly fat appears to have evolved as a primitive protective organ in humans. It begins to develop in the eighth week of pregnancy and milky spots develop after the 20th week. At birth, babies have a higher number of milky spots than adults, most likely to protect them from early assaults in the real world.

Fluid is continuously being drained from the peritoneal cavity, the space in the midsection of the body that contains the intestines, stomach and liver, through the omentum. This triggers milky spots to act as scavengers absorbing bacteria and other cellular debris or foreign substances which could be harmful to healthy cells.  In animal experiments when omentum cells were transplanted into mice with colitis, the healthy new cells helped reduce inflammation, promoted healing in the colon, helped the mice regain lost weight, and reduced the number of deaths.

Peritonitis is a bacterial or fungal infection of the thin membrane that lines your inner abdominal wall. It can be caused by inflammation, infection or from an infection from another part of the body such as a ruptured appendix, diverticulitis or a gunshot wound. The ormentum performs a number of helpful functions when this infection occurs. 

Initially it will rapidly absorb and clear microbes from the area or the omentum will adhere to the contaminants and seal them off. Second it sends a supply of neutrophils and leukocytes (types of white blood cells) to help fight the infection by ingesting invading microbes and releasing enzymes that kill them.

Sadly, even protective organs can make mistakes and the ormentum is no different. When circulating fluid in the midsection of the body sends tumor cells through the milky spots, they get trapped, like grass in a pool filter and begin to metastasize. It can provide a breeding ground for aggressive tumors such as ovarian and gastrointestinal cancers. But, simply knowing how cancer cells alter the immune system can be big a step toward developing more effective anti-cancer treatments.

You may not like your belly, but give it a pat and say thank you. It is doing far more than just making your pants tight.

© NRH Nutrition Consultants, Inc.
Jo-Ann Heslin, MA, RD, CDN is a registered dietitian and the author of 30 books. Available as eBooks from iTunes and Kindle/Amazon:

Diabetes Counter

Calorie Counter

Protein Counter

Healthy Wholefoods Counter

Complete Food Counter

Fat and Cholesterol Counter

Available in print from Gallery Books:

Most Complete Food Counter, 3rd Ed.

Your Complete Food Counter App:

For more information on Jo-Ann and her books, go to:


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