When you gain weight, where does your body fat go? Does it cling to your waistline or is it more likely to end up on your thighs or hips? You might not like storing fat in your thighs, but from a health perspective, it’s a safer option. Where you store fat may even affect your odds of having elevated blood pressure. According to a new study, people who store fat in their lower body, particularly their legs, are at lower odds of developing hypertension relative to those who store fat in other areas, like around the waistline.
To reach this conclusion, researchers looked at data on 6,000 men and women as part of the 2011-2016 National Health & Nutrition Examination Surveys. Among the 6,000 participants of which half were women, the incidence of hypertension was 25%. After doing imaging studies, they classified the subjects based on how much body fat they stored in their legs. For women, a body fat percentage of 39% or greater in the legs was deemed a high body fat percentage. In men, it was 34% or greater.
After comparing body fat percentage in the legs with the incidence of hypertension among the 6,000 participants, the researchers came to some interesting conclusions. In subjects with a lower percentage of leg fat, hypertension was 61% more common. Men and women with more leg fat were also less likely to have isolated systolic or diastolic hypertension where only one of the two numbers is elevated. Even after the researchers controlled for other factors that affect the risk of hypertension, including waist fat, those with more leg fat enjoyed a lower risk.
While you might not like the extra layer of fat that encases your thighs when you step into a swimsuit or a pair of jeans, it’s healthier than storing body fat around the middle of your body. Other research reveals that fat stores around the belly and waistline elevate the risk of high blood pressure. Studies show that if two people have the same body fat percentage and one has more fat around their tummy and waistline, they’re more likely to develop high blood pressure and cardiovascular disease relative to people with a slimmer waistline.
Leg Fat is Better than Belly Fat
When you store more body fat around your waist, it’s a marker that you have more visceral fat, a deeply seated fat that behaves more like an endocrine organ than simple fat tissue. Visceral fat is more damaging because it produces inflammatory chemicals called cytokines that damage other tissues. People who have more visceral fat are at higher risk of chronic health problems, including cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, Alzheimer’s disease, and some forms of cancer.
Belly fat can be deceptive though because it’s hard to distinguish from subcutaneous fat. Some thin people with flat tummies have relatively large quantities of belly fat, placing them at risk of hypertension and cardiovascular disease. The only way to know whether you have too much visceral fat is to get an imaging study and most people aren’t willing to get one just to find out how much visceral fat they have, nor is a doctor likely to recommend it.
The next best thing to getting an imaging study is to measure your waist circumference. All you need is a tape measure. Here’s how:
- While standing up straight and breathing naturally, wrap the tape measure around your waist at the level of your belly button.
- Write down the measurement in inches. Don’t cheat and suck in your tummy!
- If the reading is over 35 inches for women or 40 inches for men, you’re probably carrying too much visceral fat.
People with more visceral fat are often apple-shaped; they have a thick trunk and slim legs as opposed to a pear-shape where fat storage is greater around the hips and thighs. The combination of more fat storage in the trunk as opposed to storing it in the legs could be a marker for hypertension risk and a greater risk of developing cardiovascular disease.
What Should You Do if You Have Too Much Visceral Fat?
If you store fat around the middle rather than in your legs and lower body, monitor your blood pressure and blood glucose level more closely. Having this type of fat distribution means you’re more prone toward insulin resistance and prediabetes. If you’re overweight, lose weight and get as close to your ideal body weight as possible.
Exercise also helps fight subcutaneous and visceral fat. High-intensity exercise has an edge since it ramps up hormones that help burn body fat. Strength training matters too. Working your muscles against resistance improves insulin sensitivity and blood sugar control. So, be sure to balance your workouts.
Stress and lack of sleep are other factors that increase visceral fat by boosting the stress hormone cortisol. One study in women found a link between carrying more abdominal fat and greater amounts of life stress. Therefore, it’s not just what you eat or how you move your body, it’s managing factors like stress and sleep that can affect cortisol.
The Bottom Line
It’s not just how much you weigh or your body fat percentage that affects your risk of chronic health problems, like hypertension and cardiovascular disease, it’s where you store your fat. You can’t always control where your fat goes, but you can lower your risk of cardiovascular disease and hypertension through regular exercise, not smoking, eating an unprocessed diet with lots of fruits and vegetables, sleeping at least 7 hours per night, and managing stress. Keep tabs on your waist measurement too, and if it climbs above the upper limit of 35 inches for women and 40 inches for men, talk to your physician.
- heart.org. “Fatter legs linked to reduced risk of high blood pressure”
- American College of Cardiology. “Location of Body Fat Can Increase Hypertension Risk”
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- Yale University. “Stress May Cause Excess Abdominal Fat In Otherwise Slender Women, Study Conducted At Yale Shows.” ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 23 November 2000.
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