Is Thigh Fat An Indicator Of Premature Death Risk? Here's What We Know

Diet and fitness trends come and go on social media, but the "thigh gap" trend around 2011 worried many eating disorders experts, according to USA Today. Having extremely thin thighs became a beauty ideal, even though it meant dieting to extremes. Even so, just a fraction of people have the body structure to be able to attain a thigh gap. "Thinspiration" isn't necessarily healthy, especially when it can lead to eating disorders (via The Washington Post).

On the other hand, obesity can increase your risk of cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, cancer, and osteoarthritis, according to the World Health Organization. While it's not known how much excess weight leads to chronic health conditions, where you tend to store your fat can influence your risk of premature death, according to a 2020 study in BMJ. Specifically, if you tend to carry more of your weight around your thighs, you have an 18% lower risk of premature death compared to people who carry their weight around their waist. In other words, not having a thigh gap can be somewhat protective of your health.

Body measurements can indicate risk of death

The study also found that accumulating more fat on your hips lowered your risk of death. Each 4-inch increase around your hips meant a 10% lower risk of death, and this was significant for women.

However, you should also consider your waist measurement, because the fat around your waist — called "visceral fat" — can be dangerous to your health. For every 4-inch increase in the circumference around your waist, you're increasing your risk of death from any cause by 11%. According to Harvard Medical School, your waist circumference shouldn't exceed 40 inches for men and 35 inches for women.

The ratio of your waist size to your hip size or height is also important. If these ratios increase, the risk of early death goes up. For example, a 10% increase in waist-to-hip ratio increases the risk by 20%, and that same increase in waist-to-height ratio increases the risk by 24%. According to Harvard Medical School, men's waist-to-hip ratio should be no more than 0.95, and 0.85 is the upper limit for women.

Larger thighs might be protective of your health

A 2009 study in BMJ found that people with thinner thighs might be less healthy, with a thigh circumference of less than 24.4 inches increasing the risk of death from cardiovascular and coronary heart disease. The researchers suggested that a thigh gap might be an indicator of low muscle mass.

Yet the fat in your lower body — called "gluteofemoral fat" — might have protective effects on your overall health, according to a 2010 review in the International Journal of Obesity. The fat in your lower body provides long-term storage for fatty acids and produces the hormones leptin and adiponectin. Leptin helps to maintain a healthy body weight by regulating the balance between how many calories you take in and how many you burn. Adiponectin reduces inflammation and keeps your insulin sensitivity intact.

A 2022 article in Endocrine Connections also investigated this link between adiponectin, gluteofemoral fat, and overall health. The study found that having more gluteofemoral fat is linked to lower levels of blood sugar and triglycerides. This means it might lower the risk of problems like diabetes and heart disease.