Above: You can use an apple and a pear to help visualize your health risks. Photo courtesy of TGA Communications LLC.

Today’s conversations about waists seem to center (no pun intended) around apples and pears. The discussion goes beyond their tasty appeal as fruit — it’s all about physical shapes.

“Body shape is critical,” said Dr. Marie Savard, author of “Apples and Pears: The Body Shape Solution for Weight Loss and Wellness.”

The shape of our bodies is affected by how much we have of the different types of fat and where it settles. Subcutaneous fat is commonly found throughout the body, but generally settles around a person’s hips and thighs, giving the body a pear shape.

Visceral fat, found deep in the abdomen, surrounds the organs. When there’s too much, it gives a rounded apple shape to the body, and that can lead to dangerous health conditions such as diabetes and heart disease.

What shape are you? Ask yourself this question: When you look in the mirror, do you resemble an apple (widest across the belly) or a pear (weight mostly below the waist)?

There are experts who suggest a pear-shaped body is the healthier of the two. However, most medical professionals, including Dr. Savard, agree being overweight is not ideal for anyone.

For the apple-shaped women, Dr. Savard suggests following the “get healthy and get rid of the visceral fat” program. “If you want to start with only one thing, get the partially hydrogenated foods out of your life. Plus, get moving,” she advised in a Library of Congress webcast. A sedentary or inactive lifestyle raises everyone’s risk of premature death, she added.

If you’re a pear, don’t get too pleased with yourself. A UC Davis Health research paper published in “The Journal of Clinical Endocrinology and Metabolism” notes, “The protective benefits of having a pear-body shape may be more myth than reality.”

According to the UC Davis study, “Pear-shaped people may be less likely to struggle with metabolic syndrome.” Metabolic syndrome is a cluster of conditions — increased blood pressure, high blood sugar, excess body fat around the waist and abnormal cholesterol or triglyceride levels — that occur together and increases the risk of heart disease, stroke and diabetes.

However, “no one is immune to heart disease or other health risks,” the study adds.

measure belly pixabayCan we change our shapes?

For most of us, our bodies change shape as we age. “Our weight may remain constant, but unless one continues to exercise regularly, we will lose muscle mass and gain more fat,” said clinical dietitian, Alexandra (Sandy) Park, Emory Saint Joseph’s Hospital.

“It’s interesting to look at MRI scans of bone and muscle for two people of the same weight but different ages,” said Park. “In the cross section we can see the decrease or change in muscle mass and the addition of fat.”

She said that it’s especially noticeable in the amount of abdominal fat — the fat that’s most detrimental to our health — as we get older. She shared two important points.

  • While aging, we tend to replace muscle mass with fat. Fat is not as metabolically active as muscle and therefore uses fewer calories. Simply put: muscle burns calories and fat does not.
  • The second factor to gaining weight as we age has to do with portions and the kind of foods we eat. We actually require fewer calories to maintain our current weight — “but not less nutrients,” Park said.

“After 65, either intentional or unintentional weight loss has similar results,” said Park. “It’s a loss of muscle mass.” Too much sitting (or lack of any physical activity) combined with excess weight are often considered important metabolic syndrome factors.

Park said she encourages patients to watch the amount of food they put on their plates and suggests adopting the diet nicknamed “DASH.” DASH stands for Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension and emphasizes eating a variety of food with the right amount of nutrients.

The need for nutrient dense foods is still important as we add years — try to plan meals that include whole grains, fruits, vegetables and low-fat dairy products. “Make the most of the food you eat,” said Park.

So go ahead and munch on an apple or pear. Why not add asparagus and zucchini to your A to Z vegetable snacks? “Those are the foods will leave less ‘room’ for those unhealthful empty calories,” said Park.

Check yourself

Most experts agree that having more than one of the following symptoms increases the risk of a serious disease:

  • Can you find that old cloth tape measure? Check to see if your waistline is more than 40 inches for men or more than 35 inches for women (measuring across the belly).
  • Is your fasting blood glucose (or sugar) level greater than 100 mg/dl, or are you currently taking any glucose lowering medications?
  • Is your triglyceride level above 150 mg/dl?
  • Check your blood pressure and make sure it’s less than 130/85. Are you already taking any blood pressure medications?
  • And lastly, check your high-density lipoprotein level (HDL is sometimes known as the “good” or “healthy” cholesterol.) It should be less than 40 mg/dl for men and under 50 mg/dl for women.

Get a regular check-up to check your numbers and get help with improving your shape and fitness. Of course, always check with your healthcare provider before making major changes in your diet or adding exercise.

Judi Kanne is a public health communications consultant and contributing writer to Atlanta Senior Life.