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Study to assess leg fat's role in heart protection

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WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. _ Liposuction is considered the dream procedure by many women who view it a quick way to get the ideal body shape.

More than 320,000 people had the procedure in 2003, up 13 percent since 2002, according to the American Society of Plastic Surgeons.

But would you be so quick to vacuum out those saddlebags if the weight in your lower body, particularly in your legs, was protecting you against heart disease?

"In general, being overweight is not a good thing," says Dr. Wendy Kohrt of the University of Colorado Health Sciences Center, who has been studying the favorable effect of leg fat on heart health.

"If you put on your excess fat in the abdomen, we know that's a bad thing. We know being pear-shape is less bad. The question that has arisen is, can lower-body fat be somewhat protective? It may not be neutral."

Previous studies she has been involved with have pointed to a favorable effect of leg fat on triglycerides, the fats that circulate in the blood and that have been linked with cardiovascular disease.

"When you measure abdominal fat, that still remains the overriding culprit for risk factors for diabetes and heart disease," she said.

"But leg fat still emerged as an independent risk factor for serum triglyceride levels. Leg fat may regulate serum triglycerides. If funded, we want to study what will happen if we selectively reduce leg fat. Will that increase serum triglyceride levels?"

She and other researchers have applied for a grant from the National Institutes of Health to study the question. Their related research was published recently in The Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism and they want to follow up on it.

She also wants to research whether post-menopausal women would be more susceptible to the negative effects of the reduction of leg fat than pre-menopausal women.

They propose to study leg liposuction's effects on the women they recruit, following them for one year.

She hypothesizes that post-menopausal women who gain weight after the procedure may see the pounds accumulate in the abdomen, a dangerous place to get fat, particularly for women past menopause.

"Estrogen status may be determinant of where fat is accumulated," she says.

If that's true, and liposuction of the lower body would be counterproductive to heart health, many women might reconsider it.

Kohrt recognizes that such a finding might put a dent in the incredible popularity of the procedure, but she points out that her job is research.

"I think anytime you do research, you run the risk of someone becoming threatened," she said. "Companies that manufacture estrogen tablets weren't particularly happy with the results of the (Women's Health Initiative) study (that showed the dangers of hormone replacement therapy.) That doesn't mean we shouldn't do studies."

Liposuction patients who don't control diet and exercise after the procedure are three to four times more likely to gain weight, according to studies by plastic surgeons, than their counterparts who watch themselves afterward.

So resolving this question could prove life-saving.

Carolyn Susman writes for the Palm Beach Post. E-mail:

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