Breastfeeding has long been hailed as super healthy for the nursing baby. It’s also a beneficial practice for the mom, too, lowering her risk for breast and ovarian cancer, among other female-specific conditions. Many studies also have shown that women who breastfeed have a reduced risk for heart disease and diabetes, but the reasons why have never been fully understood. Researchers at Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center had a theory that they tested in a recent study.

Less Harmful Visceral and Pericardial Fats

The theory is that women who breastfeed often have less fat inside the belly, called visceral fat and less fat around the heart, called pericardial fat, since stored fat is used to provide substance to breast milk. These types of fat are known to increase the risk of heart disease and type 2 diabetes. Visceral and pericardial fat secretes inflammatory proteins called cytokines. Cytokines reduce the response to insulin, which increases the risk for type 2 diabetes. Cytokines also increase the build-up of plaques in the arteries, called atherosclerosis, which leads to coronary heart disease. As implied in the name, pericardial fat puts pressure on the heart, which contributes to cardiovascular conditions.

To test their theory, the researchers used data from an ongoing health study called the CARDIA study. This study, sponsored by the National Institutes of Health, has been active for over 30 years. It has collected health data from over 5,000 women. The research team was able to collect data from over 900 women in the study who had their pericardial and visceral fat measured by CT scan imaging in 2010 through 2011. They compared fat volumes between women who breastfed and women who never breastfed. They also compared fat volume based on how long women breastfed. The results of the study are published in The Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism.

The Longer Breastfeeding, the Less Fat

The average age of the women when they started the study was 24. These were the key results…

Women who never breast fed had a combined fat volume of 122. Women who breastfed for one to five months had a volume of 113.7. Women who breastfed for six to 11 months had a volume of 105, and women who breastfed for over one year had a volume of 110.1. The longer women breastfed, the less fat they had. Women who breastfed also gained less weight.

The researchers conclude that this study supports their theory. It may explain why women who breastfeed their babies have less heart disease and about a 50 percent lower risk of type 2 diabetes. The researchers plan to do more research on how breastfeeding influences cytokines.

Source: Study titled “The Association of Lactation Duration with Visceral and Pericardial Fat Volumes in Parous Women: The CARDIA Study,” by researchers at Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center, et al., published in The Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism.

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