If you’re shaped like an apple or pear (or any other type of fruit, for that matter), can you do anything to change that—say, by exercising more or altering your diet? Or is your body shape here to stay, controlled by your genes? That is, if your body shape resembles that of your mother or father, are you doomed (or blessed) to be that way your whole life, regardless of what you do?
In short, genes do influence body shape. More specifically, they help dictate whether you are an “apple”—a term used to describe people who accumulate fat in the abdominal area—or a “pear,” with larger hips and thighs. Evaluating which fruit best describes your build can be accomplished by an honest appraisal in the mirror or a quick calculation of your waist-to-hip ratio (WHR; see inset below).
The role of genes
Several genetic studies over the past decade involving hundreds of thousands of people of European descent have detected specific gene locations associated with body fat distribution, independent of body weight and overall body fat. The researchers used data generated by the GIANT (Genetic Investigation of ANthropometric Traits) consortium, an international collaboration whose goal is to identify genes that help control human body shape and size. In addition, the studies reinforced previous research showing a stronger heritability component for WHR in women than in men. Unsurprisingly, different ancestral groups have very different body fat distributions, so studies in non-Europeans are needed.
Research in twins also helps validate that there is a genetic component to body shape. For example, a study in the AMA Journal of Ethics in 2010 looked at the anatomy of identical twins using digital photographic analysis and concluded that the findings “support the concept that body surface features and body shape are genetically predetermined” and that diet and exercise don’t permanently alter shape.
When apples are not healthy
It’s hard not to feel disheartened about being an “apple” when the popular press seems perennially obsessed with “flat bellies” and “abs of steel,” but it’s the link between this body type and cardiovascular disease, as well as type 2 diabetes, certain cancers, and other ills, that is of real consequence. Obesity increases the risk of developing these chronic conditions, and storing excess fat in your belly increases the risk even more. Visceral fat—the type that surrounds abdominal organs including the liver, intestines, and pancreas—is sometimes referred to as “active fat” because it affects body chemistry in a way that promotes cardiometabolic disorders. Subcutaneous fat, which is stored just under the skin, does not have the same effect. In contrast to being apple-shaped, being pear-shaped is not associated with increased risk for these conditions.
What you can do
You may be genetically destined to have your mom or dad’s apple shape, but you stand a much better chance of being a healthy apple if you eat healthfully and exercise. Improving these lifestyle factors may also allow you to achieve a less obvious apple shape by helping you stay at a healthy weight. In other words, your body shape may stay the same but you can slim down overall. (The concept of “spot reduction” —that you can work out certain body areas, such as with sit-ups, to reduce body fat there—is a myth.)
In addition to keeping your calorie intake in check, you might also want to limit your intake of added sugar and saturated fat because research has shown that excess amounts of both of these boost abdominal fat.
This article first appeared in the UC Berkeley Wellness Letter.
Also see Measuring Body Weight: Beyond BMI.
Published November 13, 2019