Written by Dr. Susan Walker, ND

Good health is not only determined by being at a healthy body weight and body fat percentage, but by having a healthy body shape. This notion that body shape can be an important factor to being healthy may be news to some people as we often don’t think about where stored fat is located on the body. We just focus on losing it. However we should definitely pay more attention to our body shape as where our fat is located can be a predictor of long term health.

 It’s All About Hormones

Where you store fat – ie your shape – is controlled by your hormones and there are two main ones to be concerned with. The apple and the pear shape.

 The Apple

Too much fat in the abdominal region can give an apple or android shape. Fat accumulates mainly around the midsection and upper body in areas such as the abdomen, chest, shoulder and the nape of the neck. This type of fat distribution is common in men and starts early in life during adolescence and after. Before menopause women are more pear shaped. However at menopause women’s fat tends to acquire in their abdominal area due to a reduction in estrogen. The fat accumulation that results in an apple shape produces hormones and substances that promote inflammation. Individuals who are apple shaped and have a large amount of belly fat are at a higher risk for heart disease, high blood pressure and stroke due to the fact that fat in this area is more metabolically active. Belly fat breaks down easily into fatty acids which go directly into the liver and muscle. When these excess fatty acids travel into the liver they contribute to the production of bad cholesterol and triglycerides, a type of fat in the blood. There is also a high amount of the hormones cortisol and insulin. Cortisol is released when we encounter any type of stress, either physical or emotional. Insulin is one of the hormones responsible for keeping blood sugar within the normal range and it helps to lower blood sugar. Insulin can also be less effective at doing its job of reducing blood sugar leading to insulin resistance and high blood sugar.

The Pear

Both men and women produce estrogen with women producing it in higher amounts. Estrogen has several functions in the body. In women it promotes the development of breasts and hips. Contrary to popular belief estrogen actually increases the metabolism and the formation of bone which is a huge bonus. When it comes to fat distribution what role does estrogen play? Estrogen increases the number of receptors in the lower body that release fat slowly contributing to fat being stored in and around the bottom, thighs and hips giving a pear-shaped body type. This type of distribution is typically seen in women before they reach menopause. After menopause due to the decline in estrogen, fat gets deposited in the abdominal region and women take on more of an apple shape instead of a pear shape. Estrogen also causes women to store fat just under that skin versus the deep belly fat seen in apple-shaped individuals. Body fat in this area has been thought to be healthier than fat concentrated in the abdominal region. However new research conducted at UC Davis Health System published in the Journal of Clinical Endocrinology and Metabolism provides evidence that suggests that the protective benefits of having a pear-shaped body may not be a reality. The study found that fat stored around the bottom – known as gluteal adipose tissue – produces abnormal levels of proteins that can lead to inflammation and insulin resistance. Insulin resistance is a pre-diabetic condition and occurs when your body needs to produce more and more insulin to keep your blood sugar controlled properly. Insulin resistance is part of a condition called metabolic syndrome which refers to a group of risk factors that together double the risk for heart disease and dramatically increase the risk for diabetes. What are some risk factors for metabolic syndrome?

  • Having a large waistline
  • Low levels of good cholesterol (HDL cholesterol)
  • High blood pressure
  • High fasting blood sugar levels
  • High triglyceride levels (a type of fat found in the blood)

Furthermore the study suggests that gluteal fat may be an early indicator to identify those at risk for developing metabolic syndrome. So how do you know whether you’re an apple or a pear? Taking a good look at your body will help you determine this. However there are two other assessments you can do to help you determine what your dominant shape is. The two common methods of measuring abdominal fat and predicting health risk are waist size and waist-to-hip ratio. Research is mixed on which measurement is the best predictor of health risks as both are strong. According to a report by the World Health Organization and increase in both waist-to-hip ratio and waist circumference is associated with an increased risk of disease and that waist circumference may be used as an alternative to measuring the body mass index or BMI. Measuring is simple and both of these values are assessed during the Healthy Weight Analysis at U Weight Loss. You can even do this yourself at home with a simple tape measure.

 How to Measure Waist, Hip and Waist-to-Hip Ratio

If you want to assess your risk it’s simple. Measure your waist circumference by wrapping a measuring tape around your waist. There are a few places you can use to get the proper measurement:

  • In between the lowest rib and the top of the hip bone
  • At the belly button
  • At the narrowest point of the midsection

It’s important that you keep the tape parallel to the floor when measuring. So what are the guidelines? For men if your waist is over 90 cm (35.5 inches) that puts you at an increased risk for heart disease. For women the cut-off is a little lower; it’s over 80 cm or 31.5 inches. For the hip, take the measurement at the widest point. Then divide the waist by the hip to get the ratio! For men a ratio over .9 places you at high risk and for women your increased risk begins at a ratio over .85. Understanding your shape and what it means as it relates to your health places you in a better position to reduce your risk factors for heart disease, diabetes and some form of cancers. You can then implement an effective weight loss program to lose body fat and the U Weight Loss program is the best choice for this. The program involves making proper dietary changes, targeted nutritional supplementation and exercise which is crucial for reducing body fat, increasing muscle mass and improving your overall health.