Monday, August 6, 2012

The Effects of Thigh and Hip Fat on Your Health

How can I lose fat on my thighs and hips?  

This is a question that several of my female clients have posed to me. While they are generally concerned with aesthetics, another question should be considered: what does thigh and hip fat say about health risk? Should people with a lot of thigh and hip fat be concerned with losing it?

Research on the Effects of Lower Body Fat

To answer the previous questions, let's look at a review of studies from researchers at the University of Oxford [1]. The review looks at 20 studies that compare total thigh and hip fat with measures of cardiovascular and metabolic health. The studies measured or estimated lower body fat through the use of tape measures, CT scans, MRIs, and DEXAs (which is now considered the gold standard for measuring bone density and body composition). The tape measures looked at hip and thigh circumference, in addition to waist-to-hip ratio (disease risk increases as the ratio does).

The populations in the studies featured both men and women with an average age range of 36.6 to 73.6 years old and a weight range from "normal" to obese (according to body mass index, or BMI).

All 20 studies showed health benefits with greater amounts of hip and thigh fat. The specific relationships between health markers and hip/thigh fat are consistent through the studies. Here are some of the benefits found with higher amounts of hip and thigh fat:

  • More high density lipoproteins (HDLs), which are considered the "good cholesterol."  A high amount of HDLs is a sign of a decreased risk for heart disease.
  • A lower risk of arterial stiffness. Arterial stiffness increases risk of heart disease and a heart attack
  • Lower levels of blood insulin as well as insulin sensitivity.  Both indicate a lower risk of type 2 diabetes. Unsurprisingly, undiagnosed type 2 diabetes was less common in people who had more thigh and hip fat. 
  • Higher blood levels of leptin, which is a hormone that controls appetite. When leptin increases, appetite is suppressed.
  • A lesser state of inflammation. Inflammation is a major part of the development of cardiovascular disease, insulin resistance (a precursor to type 2 diabetes), and type 2 diabetes. 

As mentioned, all of the associations listed above are just that: associations. Thigh and hip fat aren't necessarily causing these symptoms of good health. However, there are some reasons to believe that the the butt and thigh fat are part of the cause:

  1. Thigh and hip fat act as a "metabolic sink," serving as a long term storage space for fatty acids (broken down fats).  If the thigh and hip fat didn't exist, this fat could be taken up by visceral fat, which is the fat surrounding the organs. Visceral fat is the only fat shown to accurately predict disease risk.
  2. Subcutaneous fat, which is the type of fat found in the thighs and hips, secrete adipokines. Adipokines are proteins that send signals from fat to other parts of the body, and some of them are anti-inflammatory. Secreting more anti-inflammatory adipokines helps prevent conditions that lead to type 2 diabetes and heart disease.
Putting the Knowledge to Use

Essentially, your thigh and hip fat could be protecting you from heart disease and type 2 diabetes. Research indicates that a smaller waist and bigger hips are ideal. The easiest way to assess this is to have someone measure your waist-to-hip ratio (WHR). Tailors, personal trainers, nutritionists, exercise physiologists, and health coaches are typically experienced with taking measurements. A healthy WHR is less than .95 for men and .85 for women.

A positive connotation with lower body fat runs contrary to what most of us innately feel when looking at what we are able to pinch on our thighs and butts. I doubt many of you will read this and immediately change your thinking, but I think you should start working on it anyway.  If your thigh and hip fat serves as a stressor for you, you might be wasting your energy. The more you can pinch, the more you should be thankful.

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