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Though fashion has periodically glorified the slender, delicate leg and adorned it with sky-high stiletto shoes and skinny jeans for women, the findings of one recent study in Denmark suggest that bigger may actually be better when it comes to body types that include thicker thighs.
And that goes for men, too.
The study, covered in last month's issue of the Harvard Men's Health Watch, also reveals that not all body fat is created equal.
The conventional wisdom that has existed for many years assumes that even if lower body fat is less dangerous than upper body fat, it is a problem that still needs to be dealt with.
However, the Danish study presented surprisingly reassuring news about ample thighs, raising the possibility that lower body fat may be associated with a lower risk for several common diseases.
To arrive at this conclusion, 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, thigh, hip and waist circumferences, and body fat percentage.
After years of observation, the study concluded that people with bigger thighs had a lower risk of heart disease and premature death than those with thin thighs.
"The results of the study are intriguing," since most people "would normally think that a thick thigh would be correlated to greater fat content and poorer health," says Dr. Danielle Duffy, assistant professor of medicine at the Jefferson Heart Institute in Philadelphia.
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. For women, menopause was also a factor.
The researchers measured thigh size but not thigh composition, and it wasn't totally clear, the article suggests, if the apparent protection of big thighs was due to more muscle, more fat, or both.
Some American physicians aware of the study note that although more health risks often befall individuals with apple-shaped body types (more upper-body fat) than those with pear-shaped bodies (more lower-body fat), it is critical to keep overall body fat in check through sensible diet and exercise.
Duffy suggests more studies along these lines should be organized to substantiate and fortify the findings of the Danish study, as it raises many important points about how individuals can shift their paradigm about their body types and take control of their health.
Although other cardiovascular risk factors, genetics and individual diets may not have been figured in, she says, she believes the findings underscore that a greater waist circumference and more visceral or abdominal fat can be linked to greater cardiovascular risk.
When looking to medical studies for guidance, "people are looking for a simple way to measure their potential cardiovascular risk," Duffy says. "Comparing measurements of the abdomen and thighs appears to be a good place to start, especially with findings that support the argument that larger upper bodies and waistlines are associated with a stream" of problems, "which include high blood pressure, low protective cholesterol, high triglycerides and diabetes.
"However, it would be interesting to see if indeed this is a better predictor of cardiovascular issues and metabolic syndrome, which is one of the fastest rising health issues in the U.S."
Beverly Hills-based orthopedic surgeon Dr. Bal Rajagopalan ("Dr. Raj") recommends returning to a "caveman diet," where everything eaten is whole, natural, unprocessed.
"I support the philosophy of consuming five or six small meals a day that incorporate complex carbs from grown foods, such as kale, Brussels sprouts or broccoli, as they are loaded with antioxidants and fiber," Rajagopalan says.
Like Duffy, Rajagopalan stresses that people with stronger, thicker legs have more muscle, strengthening the argument that bigger is better if care is taken.
"The second largest muscle groups are in our legs and thighs," he points out. "When you work out and maintain these muscles, it makes our bodies run more like metabolic machines that in turn can reduce cholesterol levels.
"There is a reason why personal trainers focus on squats and other leg-strengthening exercises. Most people have weak legs and sit during the day. Others, when working out, may focus on their aesthetic areas."
It is better to acknowledge the power of leg muscle, he adds: "Legs should not be overlooked, as a pound of muscle in the leg can burn three times as many calories as a pound of fat.
"The more muscle you have the healthier you are going to be."