Did you know that where your fat is located is more important than how much fat you have? Fat is deposited in unique ways, and it is this distribution in various parts of the body that increases health risks more than the amount.
Fat can be distributed and located in several ways—subcutaneously (just under the skin), or viscerally, around the organs and in between muscles. Some people have more fat in the upper body, including the arms, chest, back and abdomen, and less in the lower body, and are typically apple-shaped, also called android obesity. Others have more fat in the lower body, in the hip and thigh region, have slim upper bodies and are typically pear-shaped, which is called gynecoid obesity.
Body fat comes in two varieties—white and brown. White body fat stores easily and this is the type that can make you sluggish and fat. Brown body fat, on the other hand, is metabolically active and brown in colour because it has a rich supply of oxygenated blood and can increase the basal metabolic rate (BMR) as well as lower hypertension. Brown body fat is good for health and is best supported by a diet rich in omega nutrition, comprising seafood, nuts, seeds, eggs and leafy greens.
While most people will have a combination of both types of body fat, each person will be unique in their genetic coding for the distribution of the fat. For example, an apple-shaped person has visceral fat in the trunk and subcutaneous fat in the lower body and arms. And because apple-shaped people tend to have more visceral fat than pear-shaped people, there are greater health risks.
The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition confirmed through a 2004 study that the location of body fat is more indicative of cardiovascular health risk than how much fat the person has. This study found that when there is more visceral fat deposited around and between organs and muscles, calcified plaque formation in the arteries increases. This calcified plaque then clogs the arteries, seriously restricting blood flow to vital organs like the heart and brain, and causes heart attacks or strokes.
Whatever the type of fat distribution pattern in a person, it is important to understand that the quantum of body fat in the body is directly linked to lifestyle choices. For the most part, obesity is acquired as a result of lifestyle decisions. Indiscriminate eating habits, consuming junk food, erratic work and sleep timings and no exercise can increase overall body fat stores. If you can’t stay away from biscuits, burgers, chips, nachos, samosas, pastry and sweets, you are asking for trouble. Metabolically speaking, such habits increase fat stores substantially and make people produce hormones like insulin and oestrogen in excess. These in turn further increase fat storage and promote the distribution of fat in the following ways.
Excess insulin production results in appleshaped obesity. It also increases fat stores in the abdomen and around organs, raises hypertension and affects liver function. Apple-shaped people also have increased deposition of visceral fat around the heart.
Excesses in the hormone oestrogen tend to increase stores of hip fat and contribute to pear-shaped or gynecoid obesity. Gynecoid obesity is primarily women-centric. However, some men who have elevated oestrogen levels also tend to grow breasts, have heavier hips and thighs, and suffer from a condition called gynecomastia. Pear-shaped people also tend to have a sluggish metabolism and it may be more difficult for them to lose weight than it is for apple-shaped people.
What you can do to control your fat stores
u First, look at your mirror image and analyse your body shape and overall fat distribution—are you apple-shaped or pear-shaped?
u In case you are overweight or obese, it’s a good idea to measure your waist-hip ratio (WHR). A higher waist-to-hip ratio implies increased visceral fat. Measure your waist around the navel, and your hip at its broadest circumference. Divide the waist measurement by the hip measurement. An ideal waist-hip ratio is less than 0.7 to 0.8 for a woman, and less than 0.9 to 1.0 for a man. For example, if you are a man and your waist is 45 inches and your hip girth is 46 inches then your WHR is 0.97 and you’re at a high risk for increased visceral fat storage and disease.
u If the WHR is high, get a blood test done with your physician’s advice and check your lipid profile; and get an HbA1c test done for diabetes.
u Note down how much you eat and how much you exercise on a daily basis. Also make a note of the junk food you consume and when you consume it. This way you would be in a better position to build connections with your current health status and your lifestyle habits.
u Follow a diet that includes complex grains like oats, quinoa, brown rice, broken wheat (dalia), wholewheat, jowar and bajra. Have five-eight servings daily of low-starch vegetables like broccoli, spinach and other leafy greens, cauliflower and cabbage. Eat one or two tablespoons of seeds like sesame and flaxseeds and two servings of protein sources like lean chicken, egg whites, skimmed paneer or yogurt and fish daily. Choose from the following fruits because they have a low glycaemic index (the measure of the effect of different foods on blood glucose levels): apple, pears, papaya, orange, figs, strawberries, gooseberries.
u If you are apple-shaped, then limit your overall intake of fruit and simple carbohydrates like biscuits, white rice and desserts and avoid them after 4pm because your glycogen stores in the liver and muscles are filled by the evening, and eating simple carbs or fruits at that time can increase fat stores.
u If you are pear-shaped and have a thyroid condition, limit the intake of leafy greens like spinach and cruciferous vegetables like broccoli because they contain a chemical substance called goitrogens and this interferes with thyroid metabolism. Also, limit the intake of legumes, especially soya, because of the oestrogens it contains. Have six-eight small meals a day to increase your metabolic rate.
u Exercise regularly every single day. Do weight training three days every week to keep your metabolic rate up and prevent the increase of fat stores. Do 20-30 minutes of cardio on a daily basis to improve stamina and exercise your heart and lungs.
Madhuri Ruia is a nutritionist and Pilates expert. She runs InteGym in Mumbai, which advocates workouts with healthy diets.