3.7.3. Body Fat Distribution

Body composition measurements can help determine health risks and assist in creating an exercise and nutrition plan to maintain a healthy weight. However, the presence of unwanted body fat is not the only concern associated with an unhealthy weight. Where the fat is stored, or fat distribution, also affects overall health risks.

Non-essential fat is primarily stored in adipose tissue, or fat cells, located on the surface of the body and surrounding the body’s organs. Surface fat, located just below the skin, is called subcutaneous fat. Fat that lies deeper in the body surrounding the body’s organs is called visceral fat. Unlike subcutaneous fat, visceral fat is more often associated with abdominal fat. Researchers have found that excessive belly fat decreases insulin sensitivity, making it easier to develop type 2 diabetes. It may also negatively impact blood lipid metabolism, contributing to more cases of cardiovascular disease and stroke in patients with excessive belly fat.[1]

Body fat distribution can easily be determined by simply looking in the mirror. The outline of the body, or body shape, would indicate the location of where body fat is stored. Abdominal fat storage patterns are generally compared to the shape of an apple, called the android shape. This shape is more commonly found in males and post- menopausal females. In terms of disease risk, this implies males and post- menopausal females are at greater risk of developing health issues associated with excessive visceral fat. Individuals who experience chronic stress tend to store fat in the abdominal region.

A pear-shaped body fat distribution pattern, or gynoid shape, is more commonly found in pre-menopausal females. Gynoid shape is characterized by fat storage in the lower body such as the hips and buttocks. This shape may be connected to females’ child- bearing abilities as enzymes associated with fat-storage and mobilization are activated during certain times of pregnancy and postpartum.

Besides looking in the mirror to determine body shape, people can use an inexpensive tape measure to measure the diameter of their hips and waist. Many leading organizations and experts currently believe a waist circumference of 88cm or greater for males and 102cm or greater for females significantly increases risk of disease.[2]

In addition to measuring was circumference, measuring the waist and the hips and using a waist-to-hip ratio (waist circumference divided by the hip circumference) is equally effective at predicting body fat-related health outcomes. According to the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, a ratio of greater than 0.82 for females and 0.94 for males is associated with a higher risk of developing heart disease, diabetes, and hypertension.[3]



  1. Doheny, K. The Truth About Fat, WebMD, July 2009, http://www.webmd.com/diet/features/the-truth-about-fat#4
  2. Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, Retrieved March 2018, HSPH: Waist Size Matters https://www.hsph.harvard.edu/obesity-prevention-source/obesity- definition/abdominal-obesity/
  3. National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, Retrieved Jan 2018, NIH: Classification of Overweight and Obesity by BMI, Waist Circumference, and Associated Disease Risks https://www.nhlbi.nih.gov/health/educational/lose_wt/BMI/bmi_dis.htm


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Fundamentals of Health and Physical Activity by Kerri Z. Delaney and Leslie Barker is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.