Are You an Apple or a Pear? Why Body Shape Matters to Your Health
Have you watched any of the morning talk shows lately? If so, I'm sure you're quite aware of the belly fat diet. As a dietitian interested in the science underlying every theorized food related claim, I had to learn more, as I was certain this was yet another crazy fad diet being advertised to dupe the diet-crazed American and turn a quick buck. So, I prepared for the worst as I dove into the research. Yet, in a surprising twist, there was a silver lining to the science surrounding belly fat and the foods we choose.
Before I dive into how food impacts belly fat, lets hone in on belly fat in general.
For those of you who read women’s magazines, I’m sure you're familiar with the idea of using fruit to categorize our body shapes. Well, it turns out those shapes are important for more than simply dressing to flatter our figure. In fact, those categorized as an “apple” shape (one associated with greater abdominal fat), as opposed to the “pear” shape (with greater fat placement in the hips and thighs), are linked with poor blood sugar control, high triglycerides, high cholesterol, and inflammation. In addition, they are also more closely associated with increased levels of cortisol (the stress hormone) and reduced levels of leptin (the satiety hormone) - a group of symptoms referred to as the metabolic syndrome. These very symptoms are believed to perpetuate belly fat in a vicious cycle. It seems belly fat begets belly fat by redirecting fat storage to our belly or inner abdominal, visceral fat.
Why Is Belly Fat So Disconcerting?
The fact that the research consistently links the apple shape with the metabolic syndrome is reason enough to be concerned. This syndrome increases your risk for the trifecta of chronic diseases, those including type two diabetes, stroke, and cardiovascular disease. It seems that belly fat is far more metabolically active than subcutaneous fat, the type found in our hips and thighs (think pear shape), possessing more cortisol receptor sites than the latter as well. What this means is that belly fat, the type wrapped right around our organs, holds the potential to do far more damage to our health while hindering each organ’s ability to function.
It may help if I share a visual to accompany my ramblings. Do you remember the Oprah episode featuring Dr. Oz (before he had his own show and became so crazily influential) where they dissected actual human belly fat? I clearly remember seeing them holding up two separate omentums, the web-like organ that holds onto our visceral, belly fat. One of the omentums was enormous, dark, and imposing, while the other seemed pale and dainty. The episode was intense and very much a motivator for change. For those of you who did not watch Dr. Oz before he was the Dr. Oz of today, be sure to take a peek at the episode I'm referring to.
Am I an Apple or a Pear?
The easiest way to find out if you are at risk is to grab a measuring tape. Place it at belly button height, just above your hip bones, and wrap it around your waist, being sure to keep it parallel with the floor, and measure your waist. Oh, and please do not suck in. Breathe normally. If your tape measure lists 35” or more, take note. High risk is considered a measurement over 35” for females and over 40” for males. This may sound simple, but because it is so important to measure correctly please check out these tips from WebMD before you get started.
If you do find that your waist is a bit larger than anticipated, diabetes or heart disease is not automatically headed your way, but I would certainly encourage you to bring your waist measurement up with your physician. It would also benefit you to request further labs to gauge your internal health parameters such as cholesterol, blood pressure, and blood sugar. In the meanwhile, if you would like to take steps to reduce your risk, stay tuned for my next blog post on healthy habits you can incorporate into your lifestyle to trim your waistline and improve your health.