© 2023 WRVO Public Media
Your Source for NPR News
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

Drive to achieve healthy pear-shaped body more dangerous than an apple body, experts say

Cameron Harris/Flickr

The adage that a pear-shaped body is healthier than an apple-shaped body is prevalent in today’s health literature, but experts and research suggest that genes are to blame for the body types, and America’s cultural obsession with changing body shape is causing women in particular a lot of emotional and physical strain.

Comparing the female body to fruit is nothing new; the classification system has been around for decades, but it is only recently that researchers have discovered that body shape is a much better determinant of overall health than the more traditional measurements of weight and BMI.

David Levitsky, a professor in the College of Human Ecology at Cornell University, has been researching how food intake influences body weight. He said DNA largely contributes to where fat will be distributed in a person’s body.

“[Diet] plays almost no role in the distribution of where we deposit our fat,” Levistky said. “That, we can thank our parents for. What food will do is determine how big these types are going to get.”

The traditional pear shape relates to a distribution of fat in the thighs and buttocks, while an apple-shaped body stores fat mostly in the abdominal area.

"It's so interesting that we even create these concepts - an "apple-shape" body, a "pear-shape" body," Brenton said. "These things don't even exist for men. They just need to have bodies."

Julia Lapp, an associate professor in the department of health promotion and physical education at Ithaca College, said what makes a pear shape physically healthier than an apple shape is a difference in the types of fat cells located in each part of the body.

Visceral fat pads are located largely in between organs and in the abdomen, which is more metabolically active than the subcutaneous fat located just under the skin and in the lower half of the body. The abdominal fat pads respond to enlargement by downregulating their insulin receptors, which leads to diabetes and increased blood pressure. Subcutaneous fat does not respond in the same way and is not linked to crucial systems, making it far less detrimental to physical health.  

Levistky said the human body was not engineered to store a lot of fat in the abdominal area, and that makes the recent trends of weight gain especially harmful.

“The obesity crisis that we have today is a result of the fact that we are surrounded by all these stimuli that are making us eat a little bit more than we’re expending,” Levistky said.

These stimuli can include everything from seeing people eat to talking about food and seeing commercials that advertise food.

"We tend to idealize what is difficult to obtain," Benavides said. "And in a culture where calories are easily accessible, smaller people become a sign of who the elite is."

In addition to those messages to eat more, there are continuous commercials and products that push for women to be thin and cover their imperfections, according to Joslyn Brenton, an assistant professor in the department of sociology at Ithaca College.

“If you can manufacture discontent, then you can sell products,” Brenton said. “If you can convince the majority of the population of women that they’re not good enough and their bodies aren’t good enough, you can sell them lipstick.”

In a culture obsessed with being healthy, Brenton said she has seen women put a lot of stress into trying to change their body shape from an apple to a pear. She said the simplified application system creates a struggle that commonly affects more women than men.

“It’s so interesting that we even create these concepts—an ‘apple-shape’ body, a ‘pear-shape’ body,” Brenton said. “These things don’t even exist for men. They just need to have bodies.”

Current trends are idealizing a thin female body, one with large breasts and thin waist and legs, said Evelyn Benavides, an associate professor of sociology at SUNY Oswego. The standard of beauty has gotten thinner as the obesity crisis has worsened because of how hard that image is to achieve, she said.

“We tend to idealize what is difficult to obtain,” Benavides said. “And in a culture where calories are easily accessible…smaller people become a sign of who the elite is.”

The drive to achieve an impossible goal is what causes a generally negative body image, which can lead to a dangerous desire to exercise and diet one’s way to changing what is ultimately out of their control, Levitsky said.

“If you wanted to change your shape, you have to go through [an] enormous amount of exercise,” Levistky said. “Then, that shape will be altered for as long as you exercise, and the minute you stop, you’re going to go right back to where you [were].”

Lapp said there is some evidence to suggest that a diet high in unhealthy carbohydrates like refined, processed grains leads to increased insulin production and can result in an increase in abdominal fat. However, she said there is no way to significantly change one’s diet to change how fat is distributed on their body.

Because body shape is difficult to alter, Levitsky recommended combating weight gain on a smaller, individual level, since getting food companies to shut off their external stimuli is unlikely to occur in the near future.

“If we could get companies to reduce their food advertising, that’d be wonderful, but I know there’s no way in hell that we’re going to get food companies [to do that],” Levitsky said. “The only thing you can do is teach and give the tools to the individual, where they can fight all these influences that are making us fat.”

Brenton said another approach includes the recent Health at Every Size Movement, which focuses on paying attention to one’s body for indicators of what makes them feel good. In addition, she said women should try to care more about how they feel about themselves than conforming to what modern culture defines as acceptable.

“If a woman came to me and said they didn’t like their pear shape or their apple shape, I would say, ‘Let’s just forget about losing weight,’” Brenton said. “Let’s talk about how you can maybe just accept your pear-shaped or your apple-shaped body for what it is because that’s genetically what you were born with.”

Unfortunately, Benavides said this ideal outlook is not widely encouraged in today’s culture, which does not paint a healthy future for women in America.

“For their own psychological health, they should be focused on finding who they want to be and just accepting it,” Benavides said. “The problem with that is that they’re being bombarded with images of health…in a society where your value is always tied to the way that you look.”