Weight gain harsher among South Asian population: Study

Weight issues are a struggle for many people, but some ethnic groups have even more difficulty than most, says new Canadian research that shows people from India may not gain weight all over, but their insides may be bearing the brunt of damage.

The study from Hamilton’s McMaster University says people of South Asian origin require less weight gain than their Caucasian counterparts before fat begins to surround their internal organs because of a diminished storage capacity under the skin, causing fatty acids to reach organs faster.

Dr. Sonia Anand, who led the research team, said that while no group can avoid weight gain with high calorie intake, the South Asian population was more prone to fat buildup around the organs.

“We observed that South Asians’ fat storage just beneath the skin … was less than white Caucasians, yet their visceral fat — or organ fat — was greater,” said Anand, who works as a vascular medicine specialist at Hamilton General Hospital.

“When South Asians are energy positive — meaning they take in more calories than they burn off — and they’re developing fat … they (direct) all the fat into the visceral region, as well as the liver.”

A fatty liver is linked to jumps in blood-sugar levels, higher cholesterol and other adverse health conditions.

Anand said to prevent diabetes and cholesterol issues, the normal measures of exercise and responsible diet are required.

“In terms of prevention, the best advice at this point is to prevent oneself from being energy positive. So that means reducing daily caloric intake and burning off more calories by doing more activity to avoid weight gain and fat gain. It’s easier said than done, but other research would suggest increasing activity and reducing (high-sweetened foods), that South Asians may be able to prevent this abdominal obesity and organ fat deposition.”

The study, which was published Thursday in the medical journal PLoS ONE, used a sample group of 103 people, with roughly half being of South Asian descent and the other half being Caucasian.

Anand, however, said that many functions in the Indian culture “involve eating quite a lot.”

Ashok Kumar, the president of the Hamilton-based India Canada Society, said healthy lifestyles are among the group’s top priorities to help prevent diabetes and other health conditions stemming from weight gain and obesity.

He admits, however, that the presence of food in many cultural outings presents challenges in achieving that goal.

“We notice that if the food element is removed from any gathering, immediately the attendance decreases,” Kumar said. “People from our group do expect to eat (at gatherings). Improving the quality of food helps. Mainly the food given at general functions are not really healthy — like samosas — so we try to avoid that and give more fruit and vegetables. We are aiming heavily in that direction.”

Jumar said physical and mental health are “big issues for our seniors,” but a program that launched nearly two years ago aims to keep the South Asian population healthy.

“Right now in Hamilton, we have a (fitness) program … for people over 50 and this runs once a week in three different centres.”

Kumar said the program, which launched in December 2009, consists of one hour of yoga and one hour of other exercise.

“We try to promote healthy eating,” he said, adding that the programs also include discussion groups to explore health concerns and tips on how to stay in good shape. He admits, however, that reaching out to younger people in the community has been more challenging.

Funding for the McMaster study was secured in 2005 from the Heart and Stroke Foundation, but it took a long time to recruit subjects and analyze data because of the intensity of some of the tests involved, which included biopsy work and MRI testing.

Anand said a second part of the study is expected to explore genetics and genes that might be associated with obesity to better explain why South Asians may have to deal with added risks due to weight gain.

Although other specific populations were not considered for the study, Anand said aboriginal people “seem to have some similar characteristics to South Asians.”




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