Dr Wendi's Health

Body Fat Distribution is Controlled by Hormones

Body Fat Distribution is Controlled by Hormones

In healthy people, about 80-90% of our fat is located underneath the skin, called subcutaneous fat, and about 6-20% is found surrounding abdominal organs, called visceral fat.  Having excess visceral fat, aka belly fat, is more highly associated with cardiovascular disease than excess subcutaneous fat in other regions of the body. In other words, it is healthier to be a pear-shape than an apple-shape.  The distribution of our body fat can be a more significant indicator of heart disease than overall body fat percentage.  Gender and genetic factors contribute approximately 50% to body fat distribution but hormones play a very significant role.  You can actually get an idea of hormones that might be elevated or decreased by where you store extra fat.

Apple vs pear body shape

Hormones have a major influence on body fat distribution. 

Overall, the hormones that have the biggest impact on how we burn or where we store fat are cortisol, insulin, androgens (testosterone and DHEA), estrogen, and growth hormone.

Belly Fat

Excess abdominal fat often means that you are secreting excess cortisol, a major stress hormone produced during physical or emotional stress.  The more stress, the more cortisol, and the more your body will distribute fat to the belly. If you have excess belly fat and want to lose weight, then your primary target is going to be stress reduction.  You will want to choose exercise activities that you ENJOY, if you hate running then it will be counter-productive to make yourself run because you will just increase cortisol production.  It would also be beneficial to include relaxation types of exercise such as yoga or tai chi.  Belly fat can also be associated with excessive alcohol consumption, sometimes referred to as a “beer belly” because excessive alcohol or binge drinking is a significant stress on the body and causes cortisol secretion.  In menopausal women, the reduction in estrogen also plays a role in abdominal fat storage, partly because estrogen normally helps to slow down the production of cortisol.  Low testosterone in males and low estrogen in females can contribute to increased belly fat.  The main way to counter this is to increase growth hormone and DHEA by exercising. More growth hormone and DHEA are produced during higher intensity exercise or weight training. 

BACK fat

Back fat, such as “love handles” and fat on the upper back, and also on the back of the arms “cafeteria lady arms” often indicate excess insulin.  If you are trying to target fat loss in these areas then your goal is to regulate your blood sugar.  If you binge on sweets or eat refined white carbs on a regular basis then your pancreas has to produce more insulin. If you crave sugar then it is important to figure out the reason, does your body need energy or is it emotional?  Sometimes we crave sugar because we are trying to lose weight so we don’t eat enough calories for too long and this can trigger the brain to make you want easy fast energy….sugar.  We can also crave sugar because of the dopamine reward response and in that case, it is important to try to distract yourself or find different ways to make dopamine.  Another trick is to have your highest carb meal or sweet treat within an hour of exercise, then your muscles will use the sugar and you won’t make as much insulin.  Another trick is to add protein or fiber to the high carb meal or sugar treat; that will slow the rate of absorption and decrease the amount of insulin secreted.  Instead of ice cream or chocolate, try fruit with yogurt or oatmeal and dried fruit.  It would still give you the sweet flavor but without the insulin spike.

chest fat

Estrogen promotes storage of fat in breasts in women, which is a healthy adaptation for childbearing.  Excess fat in the upper chest area, including men with “man boobs”, or anyone with neck rolls is an indication of excess estrogen.  Estrogen is not only produced in the gonads in males and females (females produce more estrogen because they have the enzyme aromatase that converts testosterone into estrogen) but it is also produced in fat cells.  Having excess fat in general means that you can have excess estrogen.  Having too little of any hormone is just as bad as having too much.  If low estrogen is an issue then having a healthy body fat is important (between 18-25% in females and 8-19% in men).  If excess estrogen is the issue, that can be reduced by decreasing overall body fat, eat fewer calories and add in any kind of exercise.

Butt and Thighs

Extra fat on the butt and thighs is an indication of low androgens like testosterone and DHEA.  This is why women tend to have more fat in this area than men.  Women do make some testosterone but the primary androgen in females is DHEA (dehydroepiandrosterone), which is a testosterone-like molecule that is produced in the adrenal cortex.  Testosterone plays an important role in fat metabolism, which is why men have on average 9-10% less body fat than women.  Most men will have a gradual decline in testosterone production after age 30.  Low sex drive is the main indicator of low testosterone in men and low DHEA in women. The only way we can stimulate the production of androgens as we get older is with exercise.  If you are trying to target fat loss in this area then you should focus on doing some weight training or HIIT (high intensity interval training).  Weight training and HIIT also increase the production of growth hormone (also primarily made during exercise after puberty).  Weight-bearing exercise is very important for menopausal women that no longer produce estrogen in the ovaries; the adrenal glands become the main source of these growth promoting hormones that prevent muscle weakness and osteoporosis. 


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