Where are your body fat trouble spots? Does the extra fat land on your waistline or does it stubbornly cling to your buttocks and thighs? You might like to see less of that jiggle, but have you ever wondered how it impacts your health? While body fat is all similar in composition, made up of strings of fatty acids called triglycerides, where your body preferentially stores it is a reflection of your genetics and the hormonal balance within your body.
You’re probably familiar with the “apple” and “pear” body types. If you look at these fruits, you can see that each is shaped differently. If you apply that shape to the human body, a pear-shaped person stores a disproportionate amount of body fat in the hips, thighs, and buttocks. In contrast, an apple-shaped individual carries the most fat in their midsection or belly. Part of where fat is deposited is genetically determined but that’s not the only factor. Age and hormonal balance also play a role in whether you’re predominantly an apple or a pear.
How Hormones Impact Body Fat Storage
If you have to choose, aesthetics aside, being pear shaped is better for your health. An apple-shaped body is linked with insulin resistance. As you know, insulin is what opens up the cellular gates to let glucose and amino acids inside. However, cells in the liver and muscle can lose their sensitivity to insulin, meaning the cellular gates no longer open as easily. In response, your pancreas pumps out more insulin. Soon, you have a high circulating level of insulin.
Since insulin also boosts fat storage, the higher insulin level leads to fat gains, usually in the waist and tummy area. Even riskier is the fat that gets deposited around vital organs, like your liver. Plus, insulin resistance is linked with a higher risk of heart disease and type 2 diabetes.
So, an apple shape and insulin resistance go hand in hand and we know that insulin resistance is a harbinger of health issues. Other problems that go along with insulin resistance and an apple-shaped body is a high triglyceride level, elevated blood pressure, and a greater risk of type 2 diabetes. In contrast, if you store fat mainly in your lower body, the classic pear shape, most evidence suggests that your risk of developing heart disease and type 2 diabetes is lower than someone with more fat stores around the middle. On the other hand, a small percentage of people who are obese appear to be metabolically healthy. Many of these individuals have the classic pear shape as opposed to being mid-section heavy.
Before assuming that it’s okay to be overweight as long as you store your fat in your buttocks, hips or thighs, one study suggests that buttock fat carries some of the same health risks as belly fat. Researchers at the University of California at Davis found that fat cells in the buttock region secrete high levels of proteins that are linked with inflammation and insulin resistance. So, your best bet is to stay as close to your ideal body weight as possible. We now know that fat tissue is more like an endocrine organ than an inert storage depot. Fat cells produce chemicals, many of which are inflammatory. Ongoing inflammation is linked with insulin resistance and the other problems that go along with it.
The Impact of Aging
Oh, that pesky insulin resistance, why can’t it just stay away? Unfortunately, insulin resistance increases with age. This can lead to changes in body composition, including a shift toward an apple shape. Changes in sex hormones, like estrogen, are another factor. Before menopause, your estrogen level is higher. More circulating estrogen favors fat storage in the hips and thighs as opposed to the tummy. That changes after menopause when your estrogen level drops.
How Do You Know if You’re an Apple Shape?
Apple or pear – which are you? Grab a tape measure and measure your waist size. Place the tape measure about an inch above your navel. Then measure your hips at their widest point. Divide your waist measurement by your hip measurement. For women, the ratio should be 0.8 or less. For men, 1.0 or less. If your waist size is above this value, you’re storing a higher proportion of fat in your waist and tummy and have an apple shape.
Can You Change How Your Body Stores Fat?
Although your body shape is influenced by genetics, improving insulin sensitivity can impact how your body stores fat. What’s the best way to help your insulin better do its job? Research shows that simply losing weight improves insulin sensitivity. Exercise, too, enhances the way your cells respond to insulin and this happens independently of weight loss. A number of studies show that aerobic exercise acutely upgrades the ability of cells to take up glucose while regular aerobic activity improves it longer term and helps reverse insulin resistance.
Strength training, too, helps insulin function better and improves insulin sensitivity independent of weight loss. Plus, strength training creates a “metabolic sink” for glucose that removes it from the blood. Having more muscle tissue is metabolically healthy.
Eat a Whole Food Diet
As you might expect, certain eating habits can worsen insulin sensitivity. Consuming a diet high in refined carbs and sugar fuels insulin resistance while eating mostly whole foods and avoiding sugar helps your body better process glucose and prevent glucose and insulin spikes. Non-starchy fruits and vegetables along with lean protein sources, and healthy fats, particularly monounsaturated fats from sources like olive oil and nuts is helpful. Don’t overdo the saturated fat. Some studies show that a diet high in saturated fat worsens insulin resistance.
These dietary changes in combination with exercise can help you lose weight. This, in turn, improves insulin sensitivity. Certain spices, particularly cinnamon, seems to help with blood sugar control and reduce inflammation. Add a pinch of cinnamon to your coffee and hot cereal in the morning. It’s also important to make sure you’re getting enough magnesium in your diet.
Finally, make sure you’re sleeping at least seven hours a night. A study published in Diabetes Management showed that one night of too little sleep had similar effects on insulin sensitivity as six months on a diet high in saturated fat.
The Bottom Line
Having an apple shape may be a sign that your cells are not as insulin sensitive as they should be, although you have to consider it in the context of your genetics. If you have a high waist to hip ratio, follow your fasting blood sugar closely, as well as other markers of health, like blood pressure, triglycerides, and cholesterol. Make sure you’re exercising regularly and eating a whole food diet. Lifestyle, particularly exercise and weight loss, matters when it comes to insulin sensitivity and your body shape.
UC Davis Health System. “UC Davis study deflates the notion that pear-shaped bodies more healthy than apples”
Semin Nephrol. 1996 Jul;16(4):289-98.
Diabetes. 2003 Aug;52(8):1888-96.
Diabetes Management. “Sleep Well to Avoid Insulin Resistance, Study Suggests”
Ann Intern Med 157(8): 549-557, October 16, 2012.
Related Articles By Cathe: