Body Shape and Heart Disease

Look around and it’s easy to see that people come in a variety of shapes and sizes. For those of us carrying a few extra pounds, our shape may influence the risk of certain health conditions almost as much as our size.

The two main body shapes are classified as “apples” and “pears,” based on the two different areas of the body where people tend to store excess fat. Apple-shaped people store excess body fat in their abdomen, mainly around the stomach and chest. Pear-shaped people store excess body fat below the waist in the hips, thighs and buttocks.

Women typically collect fat on their hips and buttocks, giving them a “pear” shape, while men generally collect weight around the belly, giving them an “apple” shape. After menopause, as estrogen supplies dwindle, women start storing fat around their abdomen, becoming more apple-shaped in the process.

Several research studies have demonstrated that carrying excess abdominal fat (having an “apple” shape) increases the risk for type 2 diabetes, heart disease, heart attacks, strokes, sleep apnea, high blood pressure and gall bladder disease. It’s thought that excess abdominal fat is more resistant to the actions of insulin, thereby increasing the risk for diabetes. The development of diabetes, in turn, increases the risk for heart disease and high blood pressure.

There is also evidence that abdominal fat develops when you are under long-term stress. The hormone cortisol is released during stress, and it seems that high levels of cortisol in the body tend to encourage central fat to accumulate. Researchers at Yale University studied 60 women and found that the more stress they were under, the more fat they stored around their stomach.

The apple shaped body effect can be minimized with a sensible diet, regular exercise and stress-reduction techniques, such as light walking, meditation, vacations and naps.

People with a pear body shape have hips wider than their shoulders because their bodies store fat there and on the thighs. Pear shaped bodies carry their extra weight below the waistline, and do not seem to have as high a risk of developing health problems like diabetes, heart disease, stroke and high blood pressure. However, the excess weight carried below the waistline may contribute to varicose veins and joint problems in the knees, ankles or hips.

The good news is that when apples lose weight, they tend to lose it in the upper body, especially the stomach, and thus lower their risk. When pears lose weight, they also have a tendency to lose it in the upper body, meaning their overall shape may not change that much, but they are carrying around less weight, which helps with vein and joint problems.

Health risks appear to increase for women whose waist measures greater than 35 inches and for men whose waist measures more than 40 inches.

The bottom line: A person’s body shape as well as their size influences the risk for many chronic health conditions. Whether you are an apple or a pear, if you are overweight or obese, consider taking action to improve your weight by eating healthfully and being more active.

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