New Orleans, La. - We are all different, and yes, some of it is by design.
But slim or not, most people carry their body's fat in one of two areas, and now Louisiana scientists are seeking more answers on why certain body types and environmental factors put us at risk for killer diseases.
"The distribution of the fat is more of an indicator of your metabolic health," said Ursula White, Ph.D., a researcher at Pennington Biomedical Research Center in Baton Rouge who has spent years studying biological science.
Medical professionals say having too much fat affects metabolism, which has the job of burning calories and providing energy for vital bodily functions like breathing and digesting food.
Scientists characterize people having most of their fat around the abdomen as "apple-shaped," and those storing it around their hips, thighs and buttocks as "pear-shaped."
"So therefore people that have more fat in the upper body region are more, you know, predisposed to have the metabolic complications of obesity, whereas those that have fat more in the lower body actually may be protected," said Dr. White.
At Pennington, Dr. White is involved in the new "Apple & Pear" Study funded by the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases, which is part of the National Institutes of Health. The goal is to learn more about why some people are predisposed to have upper body fat while others layer it on their hips, thighs and buttocks. Fat biopsies will be taken from those participating in the study to aid in the investigation.
"We're analyzing their fat to determine you know novel factors that may be different between the two body types and also factors that could actually affect or control fat distribution," stated Dr. White.
And much is at stake. Experts say people with "apple shaped" bodies have a greater risk of heart disease, hypertension and diabetes.
"Someone who carries their weight in the lower part of their body means that they're not depositing fat around their organs, and that's where it's dangerous when the fat gets around the organs, around the liver, and the pancreas, and the kidneys and even the heart," said Melinda Sothern, Professor and Director of Behavioral and Community Health Sciences in the School of Public Health in the LSU Health Sciences Center.
But a new University of California Davis Health System study released last month suggests "pears" are not as protected as first thought.
The study concluded that fat stored in the buttocks area, called "gluteal adipose tissue" secretes abnormal levels of proteins, which can lead to inflammation and a pre-diabetic state known as "insulin resistance" in people with early metabolic syndrome. Still reaction to the latest findings is mixed.
"When the fat in the gluteal area gets so much that it begins to alter its properties just as the fat around the stomach does as well," said Dr. Sothern.
"They've had a few studies actually to show that there may be a few differences between the femoral or thigh region and the gluteal region which is the buttocks. But, however, overall both of these [fat] depots do seem to be more protective as compared to the abdominal region," said Dr. White.
And yes, fat is very active under our skin.
"We now understand that fat cells don't just hang around in there and do nothing, they basically have components of them, proteins and hormones that regulate metabolism," said Dr. Sothern.
The "Apple & Pear Study" at Pennington Research Center is intentionally focusing on women because as a group they offer both body types. Men are less "pear-shaped," scientists say, and men have the medical conditions to back that up.
"Men typically have higher rates of all those diseases that we talk about," continued Dr. Sothern.
But can someone who is "apple-shaped", be they overweight, or slim actually change their body type? Researchers say there are a lot of factors.
"Genetics do play a role, we're aware of that, however, genetics actually only account for a very small percent of fat distribution," said Dr. White.
"Not just genetically determined because now there's a new field, the term is called, "Epigenetics" whereby through development from conception they think through adolescence there are things that happen to you, places in the environment where you might be that might stress you in a different way and can alter certain parts of your body systems so that you change the way that you store fat," Dr. Southern said.
The NIH continues to say that waist size matters even if a person has a normal weight. Risks for cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and even some cancers have been shown to go up when waist size exceeds 35 inches in women and 40 inches in men.
So even "pears" must beware.
"You're protected, but only up to a point. There's a point where if you become so obese and this is typically a person who has to lose twice their body weight, so they're double their healthy weight, at that point it's less important where weight is stored," continued Dr. Sothern.
And it's not just adults who should be concerned about too much fat around the mid-section. Children can be at risk for serious health problems, as well.
"Studies have shown that children are just as susceptible to all of these metabolic complications of obesity as adults," said Dr. White.
As a clinical exercise physiologist, Dr. Sothern is conducting research in New Orleans as part of the "Trim Teens Study." She said not all fat cells are equal. Some are good and some are inflammatory.
15-year-old Genitra Mumphrey is a participant in the study and exercises at the LSU Health Sciences Center Wellness Center.
"They told me I was potentially to have a heart problem because my grandmother died from heart attack and heart failure," Mumphrey said about what doctors told when she sought hospital care.
It was a jarring warning for the Xavier College Preparatory School student.
"It hit me because my grandmother died from it, so I wanted to lose the weight, so I could have more time to live," she said.
Last year, Genitra said she weighed 213 pounds.
"When a child gets to that point they typically have high cholesterol already," said Dr. Sothern of overweight young people.
Mumphrey is in the "apple" category still she has lost almost 30 pounds since last August.
"I feel great because now instead of shopping the plus size shop, I can shop back in my size," she said.
And as Louisiana researchers focus on learning more about why we distribute fat the way we do, they have some advice for "apples" and "pears."
"Take charge of your health," Dr. White said.
"I think we need to begin to think about not whether it's in the hips, or the stomach, but whether or not we're doing the things to keep our bodies in a healthy metabolism," said Dr. Sothern.
And exercise is the fuel for the metabolism, so Mumphrey plans to keep at it given the rewards she has experienced.
"They're like Genitra, you're losing weight, oh my God, your school clothes are fitting so differently," said the 10th grader.
After a terrifying prognosis, her message to other young people is firm.
"You can die from it," she said.
Both studies are still in need in of participants.
The "Apple & Pear" study at Pennington is seeking females 18 to 40 years old. For more information call (225) 763-3000 or visit www.pbrc.edu/clinical-trials.
The "Trim Teens Study" at the LSU Health Sciences Center is for African American girls who are 13 to 19 years of age.