Turns out, it actually does matter where you store fat — or, more specifically, where you don't. Putting on weight in your waist can put you at risk for serious health problems down the road, including increased risk of heart disease, diabetes, and cancer.
We talked to Dr. Guillem Gonzalez-Lomas, orthopedic surgeon, about where people store fat, and what each area says about a person's health.
Where do most people tend to gain weight?
Well, it depends. "There's a broad spectrum of metabolisms and hormonal balances among people, but generally, men store fat in the abdominal area, and women store fat in their hips and legs," said Gonzalez-Lomas.
It all comes down to two things you can't really control: genetics and hormones. "It's something dictated by the genes you're born with," Gonzalez-Lomas explained.
If you tend to gain weight in your arms, back, belly or thighs, you can blame your parents for that. Unfortunately, like other things that we inherit from our parents, there's little we can do to change that: "other than with hormone supplementation, there isn't really any way to change the areas you store fat," Gonzalez-Lomas said.
Hormones are the second piece of the puzzle. "Testosterone and estrogen are the two hormones that play the biggest role in fat deposition," Gonzalez-Lomas said. Because men have higher levels of testosterone (which can lead to lipolysis, or fat-burning) and lower levels of estrogen, they tend to accumulate fat in their bellies; women, on the other hand, have higher estrogen levels, so they tend to store more fat in their legs and hips.
If someone truly wanted to change where their fat was stored, Gonzalez-Lomas said, they would have to take hormones — which is not really a great idea, considering they come with a whole host of side effects.
What are the risks of having too much belly fat?
Carrying extra weight in your arms, face and neck is annoying, but those areas don't really indicate much about potential health risks.
That said, there's a long list of health risks associated with a large waist size. According to Harvard's T.H. Chan School of Public Health, your risk of developing everything from heart disease to diabetes to osteoporosis goes up as your waist size increases.
"Increase in fat mass leads to a release of inflammatory chemicals in the blood," Gonzalez-Lomas says. "These chemicals wreak havoc on every organ system."
Another risk of accumulated fat storage? Low testosterone levels. "We know that obesity has an effect on testosterone. It slows down the production. With less testosterone, there is less fat burning," Gonzalez-Lomas explained. And low T has been linked to a whole host of nasty side effects, such as decreased energy to a lower sex drive.
How much is too much?
That said, going up a pant size or two doesn't necessarily mean all the things listed above are going to happen to you. Generally speaking, Gonzalez-Lomas says, if a person's waist is smaller than 91 centimetres, they aren't really at risk. However, there are obviously exceptions to the rule — which is why Gonzalez-Lomas recommends calculating your A Body Shape Index, or ABSI, to figure out what your risks are.
Basically, your ABSI number is similar to your BMI, except it also takes your waist size into account. "It provides a more accurate picture of where a person is on that scale," he said.
Although an ABSI number that falls in the overweight or obese categories indicates a greater risk of health problems, it doesn't mean there isn't something you can do about it. Losing weight and making a few tweaks to your diet can reduce your chances of future health problems.
This article originally appeared in Men's Health