Sunday, December 24, 2006: By BLYTHE BERNHARD, The Orange County Register
Since its disgusting debut last month on “Oprah,” the omentum has gone from organ oblivion to exerciser's enemy.
For the misguided few who still don't TiVo “Oprah,” omentum is the apron of fatty tissue that is attached to the stomach and hangs over the abdomen. The latest “it” organ protects the rest of your innards from the elements.
It's a good guy when there's an infection or wound in the area, wrapping the damaged guts like a squishy yellow blanket.
But when the beers outnumber the sit-ups, the omentum clings to belly fat like toilet paper to a shoe. In most cases, the bigger the beer belly, the bigger the omentum.
And yet, even with all that it does, the stomach, the liver, the intestines and even the gallbladder get more love than the omentum.
The oft-overlooked organ doesn't show up in Gray's Anatomy until page 901. The authors of “Our Bodies, Ourselves” didn't even bother to mention the tummy buddy. Worst, this newspaper's spell check refuses to even acknowledge the word.
Enter the great and powerful Dr. Oz, who peeled back the curtain of blubber, unleashing the secret of the belly bulge. Mehmet Oz, Oprah Winfrey's health guru, has everyone talking about their omentum, and particularly how to get rid of it. Not so fast, says Dr. Steven Mills, assistant professor and colorectal surgeon at UC Irvine.
“I like the omentum,” Mills says, referring to it as the “policeman of the abdomen.”
“The omentum will wrap around a problem area like a police barricade,” he says. “It's rich in immunologic cells, rich in blood vessels.” When Mills operates on someone's colon, he can count on the omentum to assist in the recovery. “It's very good at helping things heal.”
There have even been cases in which pieces of omentum were used as patches during surgeries in other parts of the body, including the spinal cord, where it can share its blood vessels and healing powers.
So why is Dr. Oz going around omentum-bashing?
It might have something to do with our eating habits. Back when we relied on twigs, berries and the occasional wild boar to fill our stomachs, the omentum stored fat for the lean times. Now times are not so lean, but the omentum still works as the body's camel, growing in some cases to as large as 7 pounds.
Doctors say fat stored in the omentum, or anywhere in the abdomen, is particularly dangerous, because it's linked to higher rates of diabetes, heart disease and stroke.
But removing the omentum wouldn't serve any weight-loss purpose. The omentum doesn't make you fat, it simply hangs on to fat that isn't burned off. And it can't take all the blame for beer bellies – there is a separate layer of fat under the skin that can grow as thick as 10 inches.
The omentum could, however, hold some clues about diabetes. A Swedish study from 2002 showed that people who had their omentums removed during stomach-banding surgery showed improvement in insulin and glucose levels.
While research into the omentum is still lacking, the small Swedish study hints that the omentum releases hormones that affect metabolism.
Researchers at UCI are interested in conducting a similar study, said Dr. Ninh Nguyen, associate professor and bariatric surgeon. Currently the omentum is not removed during obesity surgery.
Still, the omentum can shrink with diet and exercise.
“Everything inside the abdomen gets big, not just the omentum,” he says. “When you lose weight, all this goes away, including the omentum.”