Why Women Lose Fat in All the Wrong Places


So How Do Women Store and Burn Bodyfat?

The question of how we hold and burn fat is complicated, but predominately is effected by our levels of hormones, exercise and eating habits.  We're all a little different in this aspect all across the board from men and women.  We all have different body types and body fat patterns generally fall into two categories for men and three categories for women.

For men, the answer is relatively easy.

V-Shape vs Apple-Shape for Men

We have either a more v-shape bodytype with good levels of hormone and a bit of exercise and a generally healthy diet.

When we stave off on exercise, are eating everything that's not tied down or simply have a low level of testosterone men tend to have more of an apple shaped bodytype with fat embedded in and around the abdominal and love handle region.

Pretty simple stuff here.

Of course bodyfat can be stored everywhere, but we typically see this type of patterning in males.

Pear vs Hour-Glass vs Apple

For women, the answer is a bit different.  Due to fluctuating levels of estrogen and progesterone we often see one of three different patterns of bodyfat storage.

We have the pear shape, which is quite common among women with a very high level of estrogen.  Estrogen tends to store bodyfat more readily in the hips and thigh region, giving a woman a lean torso and larger hips and legs.

Then among a very balanced hormone level we have the typical hour glass figure that most people find desirable or seek to attain.  This characteristic is influenced quite a bit by genetics, but also must include a good balance of diet and exercise to maintain.

Lastly we have the apple shape bodytype, which generally points toward an imbalance of hormone levels or lack of hormone levels all together (as in seen post-menopause).

Now this isn't meant to be seen as negative at all, it's simply a matter of observing that different women will have different characteristics of where they will store more of their fat.

Now, let's get into how we burn fat.  You burn fat through fat oxidation in the mitochondria (the powerhouse for the cell) for energy that is influenced and mobilized by receptor sites (alpha and beta), the amount of blood flow, insulin sensitivity, and the actual type of fat (brown or white).

Receptor Sites

Receptor Sites are important for burning fat because they are acted on by catecholamines (think adrenaline and nor-epinephrine) to help release body fat into circulation to be burned for energy.  More receptor sites the greater the chance of releasing more fat into circulation when you need it.  Less receptor sites, less ability to burn fat and release it into circulation.

Blood Flow

This one may seem obvious, but if you have more circulating blood flow, you're going to be able to mobilize fat more readily than areas where you don't have a lot of blood flow.

Insulin Sensitivity

If you are insulin sensitive, you have a good ability to use fat for energy, because it requires very little insulin to deliver nutrients into cells and you're not flooding the body with a storage hormone.  That way when insulin levels are low you can pull out more body fat from storage to be used as fuel.  High levels of insulin will stop fat burning almost entirely.

If you're insensitive to insulin your body requires a lot of insulin to do it's job.  Diabetes II is an example of uncontrolled amounts of insulin being released into the body, which makes it harder to burn body fat since insulin is always very high.

Types of Fat

Brown fat is a type of fat that has increase mitochondria to help us keep warm under cold conditions.  This is a special type of fat that actually burns up calories to help us stay leaner.

White fat is that other fat that we'd rather get rid of that is simply stored fuel for the body.  It's generally dense, thick and can be found all over the body.

So with all these things responsible for mobilizing body fat we typically see some patterns in regards to fat loss.

Viceral Fat vs Subcutaneous Fat vs Partitioning of Fat 

Viceral fat is our first area of discussion.  This fat is the lining of fat surrounding your internal organs.  It's very easily accessible for storing and mobilizing fat.  It has a great level of blood flow, it's very insulin sensitive so if you keep your insulin levels low, body fat will pour out of this area easily.

So you'll typically start losing your excess fat from this area.  Which generally doesn't show up on the scale and isn't visible to the naked eye.  Not so good for your typical person who wants to see their belly fat melt away and those legs and hips decrease in diameter.

Then once you've lost quite a bit of that easy to burn fat, you can start to see some losses in the subcutaneous fat (the fat that's under the skin).  This area is harder to lose fat from since their isn't a great deal of receptor sites and limited blood flow.  The level of insulin sensitivity in these tissues is very high, meaning if you have a large amount of insulin floating around in circulation this type of body fat just isn't going away.

So the key here is consistency and keeping insulin low enough to burn off enough visceral fat and then start reaching into the layers of fat underneath the skin.

The one caveat for both of these types of fat stores is that hormone levels for women can influence where body fat is stored.  This is the partitioning effect that we see in the Apple and Pear shaped body types.  If you have a pear shape, you have a fairly high level of estrogen that locks fat into the lower thigh and glute region.  This is an essential mechanism for women to help preserve them in times of starvation where they may have to go without food (which really doesn't happen nowadays) for long periods of time and still preserve their reproductive capacity.

Whereas if you have an apple shape you're going to have more fat storage in the abs and love handle region, characterized by a low level of both estrogen and progesterone or even perhaps a higher level of testosterone or stress hormone cortisol.

These hormonal effects makes it very difficult for women who are starting pre-menopause since as hormone levels change and start dropping, body fat levels start creeping up massively in the thighs and hips (since progesterone is dropping to low levels).  Then when the estrogen levels stop as well in the post-menopause phase the body fat partitioning starts to trickle into the abs and love handle region as well.  Making it very difficult to lose fat from these areas, if one is not actively working to combat this fat gain through nutrition and an adequate exercise routine.

The best solution to this dilemma is to keep plugging away at your exercise and lifting program and monitoring your nutrition closely eating within your means, but filling up on the good stuff.  Remember fat loss is a slow process and doesn't occur overnight.  So just get ready to stay the course and not be in a rush to get things done.  Start small, start slow and work up from there.

Don't focus on the scale as the primary method of your bodyfat goals.  The scale won't tell you really what's happening.  Because as you keep losing more and more fat, while building muscle it your weight will start leveling off and you'll experience a more even effect on the scale.  So if the scales stops moving for a bit, keep in mind you may be building some muscle and still losing fat.  Just keep focused on your goals and pay attention to how your clothes are fitting and how you feel.

You can get there, regardless of where you start.  As long as you get started...




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Jess Howland

Jesse "Captain Smash" Howland is the owner of SMASH’s Strength Lab, which offers targeted personal training to reach a variety of fitness and physique goals. A natural bodybuilder, competitive powerlifter, certified personal trainer, and nutrition coach, Jesse is often the go-to resource for personal training Ottawa. He studied Exercise Science at Oregon State University and even trained at the world famous Gold's Gym. He's a former US Army Captain with the 86th Infantry Brigade Combat Team, a former blog writer at Veterans Fitness Career College, and former Chief Executive Officer at U.S. Army Forces Command (FORSCOM). His workouts and personal training are army-inspired to help reach your weightloss, athletic, or physique goals.