A team of US and German researchers has found that measuring levels of a specific protein in the blood may help assess accurately how much fat coats the body's organs.
Researchers from Harvard University and the University of Leipzig analysed 196 people, and found that genes that produce the protein RBP4 were up to 60 times more active in obese people with high levels of visceral fat than in lean people.
In contrast, the researchers found that the same genes were only 12 times more active in obese people with a preponderance of fat lying just under the skin.
The findings attain significance as the build-up of visceral fat has been linked to an increased risk of heart disease and type 2 diabetes.
According to the researchers, a treatment to cut levels of RBP4 may help provide health benefits. Previous studies had shown that reducing RBP4 levels in obese mice helped the animals to make better use of the hormone insulin, and thereby reduced their risk of diabetes.
It was also found that measures to improve insulin sensitivity in human subjects resulted in a reduction in the levels of the protein. "We believe that in the near future, measurements of RBP4 serum concentrations might serve as a novel biomarker for visceral obesity and increased risk for type 2 diabetes and other adverse outcomes of visceral obesity," the BBC quoted researcher Dr Matthias Bluher as saying.
"In addition, pharmacological interventions that reduce RBP4 levels might be a new approach in the treatment of metabolic syndrome and visceral obesity," the researcher added.
Dr Iain Frame, research manager at Diabetes UK, believes that though the results of the study are interesting, further study is needed before any conclusion about he feasibility of a blood test is drawn. "While we welcome innovations which could help identify people at risk, at present a quick and easy way to measure the risk of Type 2 diabetes is by measuring waistlines," he said.
June Davison, a cardiac nurse at the British Heart Foundation, also agreed that more research was warranted to draw firm conclusions. "What we know for certain is that being overweight or obese increases your risk of developing heart disease and having a heart attack. That's why we encourage people to take steps to control their weight, shrink their waistlines, and reduce their risk by eating a healthy balanced diet and being physically active," she said.