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For older women, leg fat is ‘better than belly fat,’ study says.

If you have more fat on your legs than on your stomach, you may be protected from heart disease, according to a recent study published by European Heart Journal.

Researchers gathered data from 2,600 women of relatively healthy weight (a body mass index of between 18- & 25) over a span of 18 years as a part of a major U.S. study, the Women’s Health Initiative, which started in the mid-1990s. All the women took part in regular scans to check fat, muscle and bone density.

They found women with an “apple-shaped” body type, with more fat around the belly, were three times more likely to be at risk for cardiovascular disease development than those with a “pear-shaped” body type, which is fat around the thighs and hips. Those with more fat in the legs had a lower risk for cardiovascular disease than those with less leg fat while the greater amount of “trunk fat,” the higher the risk of cardiovascular disease.

Fat stored around the abdominal organs, called visceral fat, increases the risk of metabolic problems such as Type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease. 

Though the reasoning behind why leg fat might be protective is still unclear, it seems it is not causing any problems in the body. An unhealthy lifestyle in middle age, however, can make you susceptible to an increase in abdominal fat.

Research conducted in the past has only focused particularly on those who were overweight or obese, and not necessarily women who were a normal weight, according to Professor Qibin Qi of Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York.

“Our study participants were all women with normal weight…. mostly they were not worried about their obesity status, but our findings send the message that even normal-weight people still need to pay attention to their body fat distribution…so this message is very important: even for women with a healthy body weight, [as] ‘apple shape’ or ‘pear shape’ still matters, Qi said.” 

Professor Qi asserted the main goal is to try to attain a better ratio of belly to leg fat by reducing overall belly fat. “It is unknown whether there might be some particular diet or exercise which can help relocate fat,” he added. Our group is working on this question and hopefully we can have an answer soon.”  But uncertainties aside, Professor Qi still highly recommended maintaining a healthy diet and frequent exercise.

The findings appear to support past research that links fat distribution to cardiovascular risk, particularly in women, said one expert not involved in the new study.

According to Dr. Sonya Babu-Narayan, associate medical director at the British Heart Foundation, “This study uncovers an interesting link between where fat is stored and your risk of heart attack and stroke, but can’t tell us why it exists… “Future research to uncover how the distribution of body fat is related to these diseases could reveal important new ways to prevent and treat the world’s biggest killer.”

Additional information on the role of excess abdominal fat (in both men and women)  with relation to one’s health can be accessed at the following site:

https://www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/abdominal-obesity-and-your-health

Mark A. Mahoney, Ph.D. has been a Registered Dietitian/Nutritionist (RDN) for over 35 years and completed graduate studies in Nutrition & Public Health at Columbia University. He can be reached at marqos69@hotmail.com.

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