Thick Thighs May Protect Health, from the Harvard Men’s Health Watch

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Lower body fat is less dangerous than upper body fat and may even be beneficial to health.

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Obesity may soon overtake smoking as the leading preventable cause of death in the United States. But not all body fat is created equal, reports the January 2012 issue of the Harvard Men’s Health Watch. Fat located around the body’s internal organs (visceral fat) is much more dangerous than fat layered beneath the skin (subcutaneous fat), and abdominal fat is more hazardous than lower body fat. But can some types of fat actually promote health?

Until recently, doctors assumed that even if lower body fat is less dangerous than upper body fat, it’s no bargain on its own. But new research offers some unexpected news about ample thighs: without questioning the fact that upper body fat is a formidable foe, the research raises the startling possibility that lower body fat may be associated with a lower risk for some diseases.

Danish scientists evaluated 2,816 men and women ages 35 to 65 who were free of heart disease, stroke, and cancer when they joined the study in the late ’80s. Each participant provided a detailed health history and each underwent comprehensive examinations that included measurements of height and weight and thigh, hip, and waist circumferences, as well as body fat percentage.

They found that people with big thighs had a lower risk of heart disease and premature death than those with thin thighs. In round numbers, a thigh circumference (measured where the thigh meets the butt) of about 62 cm (about 24.4 inches) was most protective; bigger thighs provided little if any extra benefit, but progressively thinner thighs were linked to progressively higher risks.

Thigh size remained a strong independent predictor even after researchers adjusted for risk factors such as smoking, exercise, alcohol use, systolic blood pressure, cholesterol and triglyceride levels, and (for women) menopause.

The Harvard Men’s Health Watch article notes that this evidence is based on only one study, but its results are impressive. However, since researchers measured thigh size but not thigh composition, they weren’t able to tell if the apparent protection of big thighs is due to more muscle, more fat, or both. But it reminds us that while it’s important to keep overall body fat in check by taking in fewer calories and burning up more calories with exercise, lower body fat (the “pear shape”) is less dangerous than upper body fat (the “apple shape,” or “beer belly”).

Read the full-length article: “Big thighs may be wise"

Also in this issue:

  •     Kidney stones
  •     Treating warts
  •     What to do about a torn meniscus in the knee

The Harvard Men’s Health Watch is available from Harvard Health Publications, the publishing division of Harvard Medical School, for $29 per year. Subscribe at or by calling 877-649-9457 (toll-free).

Media: Contact Raquel Schott at Raquel_Schott(at)hms(dot)harvard(dot)edu for a complimentary copy of the newsletter, or to receive our press releases directly.


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