Fat Distribution Influences Health

Where you carry weight makes a big difference in overall health.

Fat distribution

Your fruit shape is more than just magazine quiz material. Fruit photo via Shutterstock

As the saying goes, you can’t compare apples to oranges. But as it turns out, you can compare apples to pears.

According to Dr. Susan Fried, a professor at Boston University School of Medicine and director of the Boston Obesity and Nutrition Research Center, pear-shaped women—those who carry fat below the waist—are actually healthier than apple-shaped women, who carry fat around their abdomen. Believe it or not, abdominal fat actually puts women (and men, though they have less variance in where fat is deposited) at a higher risk for body fat-related problems like diabetes and heart disease. “Having fat around your waist seems to be bad, no matter where it is, and having fat in your lower body, below your waist, is remarkably good,” Fried says. “And that is seen in women who are exactly matched for total fat, so it’s not total fat—it’s where it is.”

In other words, all fat isn’t made equal. Though the reason behind that discrepancy still isn’t clear, it’s the subject of Fried’s research. “It appears from our work that fat cells from the thighs are very efficient at accumulating fat,” she explains. “If I can safely deposit my extra calories in my thigh fat and not in my belly fat, it also won’t go to other bad places like my visceral fat [fat that surrounds the internal organs] and my muscles and, in particular, my liver.”

If you’re suddenly panicking about your love handles and belly fat, Fried says there’s unfortunately not much to be done, since fat distribution appears to be determined in large part by genetics. “It’s very hard to turn an apple into a pear or a pear into an apple,” Fried says. But every individual is different, and not having washboard abs doesn’t mean you’re doomed. Fried adds that closely monitoring risk factors and blood sugar levels, eating well, exercising, and losing weight if necessary are all good ways to prevent future health problems regardless of your trouble spots, and that awareness is everything. “It’s addressable,” she says. “You’re better off knowing about that so you can be motivated to change.”

And if you’ve spent countless summers complaining about how your legs look in shorts, this is a silver lining. “Don’t worry about it. Actually, be thankful,” Fried says of having a pear shape. “You might not like it for other reasons, but health-wise, it’s terrific.”