The Shape of your Health

Concerned about your long-term health prospects? Worried about whether the potential for heart disease, cancer or other diseases are lurking within your body?   Your mirror my hold the answers.

Take a long hard look at yourself in the mirror.  What shape does your body most resemble?  Are you more like an apple or a pear?  The answer may impact more than how your clothes fit. When it comes to your health, shape matters.

According to Kenneth Thomas, MD, family physician with Cypress Medical Clinic, more and more medical researchers are finding that your body shape reveals more than you might think about your future health.   "Your body shape is largely determined by how -- and where -- your body stores fat.  The way you look, specifically your body shape, can reveal a whole host of clues about your longevity and your risk of serious illness.  You can't just use the number on the scale, or your body mass index to evaluate your weight and its impact on your health.  It turns out that two of your best tools for better health may be a mirror and a tape measure. "

Medical experts now have a much better understanding about how the location of excess body fat reveals a great deal about what is going on inside your body.  Dr. Thomas explains that for more than a century, doctors have been aware of a correlation between certain body shapes and an individual's health. Much of what they have discovered isn't fully understood, but the evidence is clearer than ever that there is a definite link between body shape and your health.   For years, these statistical links were merely puzzled over by scientists, but over the past decade or so, clues have been found that may explain the findings, and could in turn provide exciting new ways of preventing, screening and treating certain diseases in the future.

Dr. Thomas says there are two standard body types.  The apple body shape is larger around the midsection with thinner limbs. The pear body shape has a defined waist and heavier bottom, thighs and legs.  "Of course, this isn't a cookie-cutter categorization.  There are many variations in body shape, but all of these are just variations of one of these two basic body types."

"If you still aren't sure which shape category you fall into, there is a simple equation that can give you an immediate answer," says Dr Thomas. "Measure your waist and then measure your hips with a cloth tape measure. Divide the number of the inches in your waist by the number of inches in your hips. If the number is less than .80 you are a pear and if it is greater than that you are an apple."

Rotten News for Apples

In terms of disease, apples are at greater risk.  "One thing we know for sure is that being round and apple-shaped is very bad for your health.   It just isn't healthy to carry fat around the middle," explains Dr. Thomas.  "When fat accumulates in the abdomen and waist area it doesn't just buildup under the skin.  It accumulates inside the entire upper torso around the heart, liver, kidneys and intestine.  It can even begin to grow inside the organs restricting blood flow and interfering with function.  This is why people with an apple shape are at higher risk of cardiovascular problems, diabetes, metabolic disorders and certain cancers."

Dr. Thomas says researchers are not sure exactly why waist fat is so damaging, but most agree it's because fat cells in the waist area tend to be very active.  "Fat cells in the abdomen are not just stored, they produce chemicals and some of these chemicals seem to produce an imbalance of proteins and hormones that can damage the body's vascular and metabolic systems."

Pears Have Recipe for Better Health

The good news is fat carried below the waistline is less risky than abdominal fat.  "Excess fat stored below the waistline is still a problem, it's just a problem with a longer fuse," explains Dr. Thomas.  "Being overweight, regardless of where your fat is stored can still lead to health problems, but fat stored in the lower body does not pose as serious a health risk as abdominal fat, and we find that pear-shaped people have fewer weight-related health problems than apples."

On the bad news side, research shows that pears have a higher risk of varicose veins, osteoporosis, breast cancer and prostate cancer.  Experts attribute some of these heath risks to the fact that pears tend to live longer, and thus are more at risk of diseases associated with old age.

Another problem for pears is that pear-shape dieters have more difficulty losing weight than apple-shape dieters.   Dr. Thomas says subcutaneous fat stored in the buttocks, hips and thighs is more difficult to lose than fat stored in the waist area.  "And pears can become apples later in life if they don't control their weight."

How your Heart Health Shapes Up

Your waistline is a window to your heart's health.  Where you store extra fat on your body plays a big role in your risk for cardiovascular disease, according to Chris Thompson, MD, Cardiologist with Cardiovascular Specialists in Sulphur.  "Fat stored in the abdomen area creates a physical environment primed for heart disease and stroke. With coronary artery disease being the biggest cause of death in the United States each year, growing evidence points to body shape as the single biggest predictor of heart disease risk."

A recent study published in The Lancet concluded that, compared to body mass index, a person's waist-to-hip ratio is three times more effective at predicting heart attack risk. Further, research shows that apple-shaped women and men are up to four times more likely to have a heart attack than those who are pear-shaped.

In order to lower heart disease risk, Dr. Thompson says men should strive for a waist size of 35 inches or under and women 33 inches or under.

Reshape Your Health

Whether you are an apple or a pear shape, Dr. Thomas says the best way to stay healthy is to recognize the risks associated with your body shape and maintain a healthy weight for your body.  By knowing if you are an apple or a pear, you can make smarter decisions about your diet, exercise, screenings and other health strategies.  You may also have to accept that there may be areas you can't change. "If you are a pear, for example, your thighs might always be larger in comparison to your waistline. You can't control, or change, your inherent body structure or how your body stores fat.  But it is important to do the best you can with the body shape you have."