How brittle are your bones?

Susan Flanagan
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Local study on obesity offers free scans

I’ve been scooped. For over a year I’ve wanted to write a column on getting a bone scan as part of a gene-based obesity study led by a husband-wife team of researchers at Memorial University.

I went for a scan the Friday before last and prepared a column. Then I opened Saturday’s paper and read an article by James McLeod on the study. To add vinegar to the writer’s wound, on Monday John Furlong discussed the same study on CBC’s “Radio Noon Cross Talk.”

Alas, you may already know some details noted in this week’s column, but perhaps not a lot about what drew me to participate in the study, not once but twice.

I know what you’re thinking. That Flanagan person is a hypochondriac. But I assure you participating in the study more than once is perfectly legitimate. What excited me most about the whole process was not so much the results of the study, but the benefits to those taking part.

The fact that I could book a bone scan free of charge and have it completed within days is just mind blowing. Not only that, but within minutes of completing the scan, a researcher sat down with me and explained the results in lay terms so I could understand what it all meant. Some results were obvious; like I didn’t need the diagram to tell me where the most fat is stored on my body. (Hello, hips.) But other parts of the report definitely required explanation.

I first participated in the study on genes and body weight back in September 2011 after I received an email explaining Dr. Guang Sun’s study to investigate obesity in this province. To date, Dr. Sun’s lab has tested more than 3,100 third-generation Newfoundlanders. That’s one condition of the study: you have to be at least a third-generation Newfoundlander in order to participate.

After the scan, I knew exactly what proportion of my body weight went to bones, fat and muscle. It is fascinating to see it all laid out in a table.

To get your bone scan, email and book an appointment. You do have to fast for 12 hours, so a morning appointment is best. Once a time is set, the lab emails you some paperwork to fill out concerning your eating habits and health. It’s eye-opening when you answer questions like how many servings of pastries and chocolate you eat per week and how often you cook with margarine and oil.

There’s no sense in fibbing, as the proof will be in the pudding. Via email, researchers will also explain how to get to Dr. Sun’s lab (it’s in a dizzying maze on the fourth floor of the Health Sciences Centre). When the morning comes, you have to remember not to eat anything, get yourself to the Health Sciences Centre, and get some blood taken.

Pardis Pedram, one of the researchers and authors of the report that was in the news last week, gave me a juice box after my blood work before I was led downstairs for the scan by technician,  Ms. Zhang. Once in the lab, I went behind a curtain, changed into a johnny coat and removed jewelry before Zhang measured my height, weight, waist and hips. Then came the exciting part.

The bone scanner looks like something out of Star Trek. It’s not closed in so you don’t feel claustrophobic like when you get an MRI. You lie on the table and this big white and aqua arm passes over you from head to toe. You feel like you’re about to get beamed up. Then it does quick separate scans on your left hip and spine.

“We scan the left hip because most people are right-leg dominant,” explained another researcher named Farrell Cahill, who although eloquent as a head of state, speaks as quickly as John White.

So that means that if osteoporosis is present, it will be more obvious on the left side, which is less weight bearing than the right. That made sense to me. I know when I run, my right leg leads and does all the work while my left leg just follows.

In 2011, my bone scan results showed my left hip was just under the normal healthy zone for my age group, even bordering on osteopenia, which is what precedes osteoporosis. Things haven’t changed much in two years. My spine, both in 2011 and now, scored above average for bone health. My body mass index (BMI), which measures the amount of fat I carry, has changed since 2011. And not for the better.

The results showed that in just two years, my percentage of body fat increased 3.5 percentage points from 23.9 to 27.5. So, even though both numbers fall within the healthy range of fat for a 46- almost 47-year-old female, I definitely have to keep an eye on my chocolate and margarine consumption. Nothing like two diagrams of your body fat to bang home how quickly calories can take hold and your weight can creep up.

Hand in hand with the increased BMI, the study showed my weight had also increased by 2.5 kg. Despite all that, however, my bone mass had also increased, meaning my bones were denser, i.e., healthier than they were two years ago.

“How can that be?” I asked.

“More exercise, better diet,” Cahill answered. I don’t know about that. The Toblerone bars that were destined for stockings last Christmas went down my gullet instead. Ditto for some Easter eggs that mysteriously disappeared — it was a long spring. But lab tests don’t lie. If my bones are denser despite my fat increase, I’ll take that and rejoice in small successes.

“If I were you, I’d look at your intake of calcium and vitamin D,” said Cahill, explaining how increasing both might help bone density, especially as I age. He also said it wouldn’t hurt to get an OGTT test to measure glucose intolerance. Oh, and he recommended hip exercises that include movement on more than one plane, like swimming or adduction/abduction with a tension band, rather than the repetitive thunk thunk of running in a straight line.

Results pending

I am still waiting on the blood tests results from Friday, but one day soon I will wake up to find an email explaining the works: glucose, cholesterol, triglycerides, high- and low-density lipoprotein cholesterol (HDL,LDL), and risk factor which means they take my total cholesterol and divide it by HDL, and finally, insulin.

And all this at no charge. And I don’t have to feel guilty thinking I’m taking the scanner away from people who need it for medical diagnosis. The scanner used in Dr. Sun’s study is a dedicated research scanner. Eastern Health has other scanners for non-research purposes.

The whole visit takes less than an hour. And if you convince your siblings to go as well, you can compare results over unbuttered popcorn on a Friday night.

As for the study results, basically the researchers in Dr. Sun’s lab (Pardis Pedram, Danny Wadden, Peyvand Amini, Wayne Gulliver, Farrell Cahill, Sudesh Vasdev, Alan Goodridge, Yunqi Ji, Guang Sun) have discovered that adults who scored high on a scale known as the Yale Food Addiction Scale may react to high-calorie foods in the same way an addict responds to drugs.

Consumption is not necessarily pleasant, but the body craves the results and, over time, may require more and more of the same foods to achieve the same results. Out of the more than 3,100 third-generation Newfoundlanders studied, 652 were chosen, based on their responses to the Yale Food addiction Scale, to be further studied. Of that second study group, more than five percent were found to have a food addiction.

For more information on the study, you can Google the results in PLos One, a medical journal. The article is called “Food Addiction: Its Prevalence and Significant Association with Obesity in the General Population.”

Susan Flanagan is a journalist who knows she shouldn’t eat large amounts of

chocolate. She challenges you to place Pardis Pedram’s accent. Susan can be reached at

Organizations: CBC, Health Sciences Centre, Toblerone Google Significant Association

Geographic location: Eastern Health

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