Some women love it, some hate it, but having a big butt isn't a bad thing. Women with pear-shaped bodies efficiently store fat on the hips and thighs, making them healthier by some measures than those with an apple shape. Now, researchers in Germany suggest being lean with more lower body fat may be an indicator of good health and long life expectancy.

Among normal-weight people, a low accumulation of fat in the lower body indicated an unhealthy metabolism, according to their study. In other words, more fat in the lower body appeared to have a protective effect against metabolic problems, such as heart disease and diabetes, in normal- weight people.

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The researchers said fat storage in the hips and thighs stays put, whereas fat in the upper body could travel to other areas, like the heart or liver, and cause problems. 

"It is better for people of normal weight to be pear-shaped rather than apple-shaped, so that weight is carried on the bottom half of their body rather than around the middle," Dr. Norbert Stefan, lead author of the study published in Cell Metabolism, from the University of Tübingen, told the DailyMail.

Moreover, Stefan stressed the hips and thighs offer "safe storage" for fat to stop it from reaching the blood and organs.

People identified as lean, but metabolically unhealthy, have a normal body mass index (BMI) — a measure of body fat based on weight in relation to height — but they have at least two risk factors for heart disease and diabetes. According to the study, about 20 percent of normal-weight people are metabolically unhealthy.

Data was analyzed from about 1,000 people, including those who were normal weight, overweight, and obese, and who took tests to determine their body fat mass and fat distribution. All participants were at increased risk of heart disease or diabetes, based on their weight, family history of diabetes, or abnormally high glucose levels. MRI scans of fat distribution around the body and fitness checks were conducted to determine who faced a greater risk of metabolic diseases.

The findings revealed those with normal body weight, but smaller hips and thighs, had the highest risk of disease. However, the researchers propose drugs called thiazolidinediones may be particularly helpful for lean people with diabetes or heart disease because these meds help the body store fat cells, specifically in the lower body. However, they caution further research is needed to confirm this hypothesis.

Meanwhile, people with higher than average BMIs may have fat levels in their internal organs that are already too high to receive the extra protection fat cells offer lean people. Based on genetic analysis, metabolic risk can be determined by different pathways in normal weight and obese people.

It seems being pear-shaped is more beneficial for lean people than for those overweight or obese.

Previous research has found people who store more body fat in their hips and thighs could potentially reap heart and brain health benefits.

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A 2007 study noted that having a pear-shaped body was linked with better brain function and giving birth to smarter kids. Researchers said this effect may be attributed, in part, to the high storage of omega-3 fatty acids in the hips and thighs, which help nourish the brain, and are essential to fetal brain development in the third trimester of pregnancy. Meanwhile, fat stored around the middle is loaded with omega-6 acids which increase the risk for obesity and obesity-related diseases. At the same time, brain function and intelligence can't be attributed to any single factor, such as weight distribution.

Meanwhile, a study presented at the 2013 European Congress on Obesity in Liverpool, England, found adults who put on weight in their lower body are less likely to do so in their abdomen. The researchers concluded the greater the change in fat cells in the thigh, the smaller the fat cells in the abdomen, which helps explain why some people put on weight on their thighs more readily than their abdomen. This suggests women who have pear-shaped bodies are less at risk for heart disease, since fat distribution and waist-to-hip ratio are influential factors.

Remember, this doesn't mean bigger is always better. This protective effect is based on the size of the hips relative to the waist. Also, being in good shape is contingent on diet and exercise, not just body shape.

Source: Stefan N, Schick F, and Haring HU. Causes, Characteristics, and Consequences of Metabolically Unhealthy Normal Weight in Humans. Cell Metabolism. 2017.

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