The sexual dimorphism of obesity

Mol Cell Endocrinol. 2015 Feb 15:402:113-9. doi: 10.1016/j.mce.2014.11.029. Epub 2015 Jan 8.


The NIH has recently highlighted the importance of sexual dimorphisms and has mandated inclusion of both sexes in clinical trials and basic research. In this review we highlight new and novel ways sex hormones influence body adiposity and the metabolic syndrome. Understanding how and why metabolic processes differ by sex will enable clinicians to target and personalize therapies based on gender. Adipose tissue function and deposition differ by sex. Females differ with respect to distribution of adipose tissues, males tend to accrue more visceral fat, leading to the classic android body shape which has been highly correlated to increased cardiovascular risk; whereas females accrue more fat in the subcutaneous depot prior to menopause, a feature which affords protection from the negative consequences associated with obesity and the metabolic syndrome. After menopause, fat deposition and accrual shift to favor the visceral depot. This shift is accompanied by a parallel increase in metabolic risk reminiscent to that seen in men. A full understanding of the physiology behind why, and by what mechanisms, adipose tissues accumulate in specific depots and how these depots differ metabolically by sex is important in efforts of prevention of obesity and chronic disease. Estrogens, directly or through activation of their receptors on adipocytes and in adipose tissues, facilitate adipose tissue deposition and function. Evidence suggests that estrogens augment the sympathetic tone differentially to the adipose tissue depots favoring lipid accumulation in the subcutaneous depot in women and visceral fat deposition in men. At the level of adipocyte function, estrogens and their receptors influence the expandability of fat cells enhancing the expandability in the subcutaneous depot and inhibiting it in the visceral depot. Sex hormones clearly influence adipose tissue function and deposition, determining how to capture and utilize their function in a time of caloric surfeit, requires more information. The key will be harnessing the beneficial effects of sex hormones in such a way as to provide 'healthy' adiposity.

Keywords: Estrogen, estrogen receptor alpha; Obesity; Sexual dimorphism; Subcutaneous fat depot; Visceral fat depot.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Adiposity
  • Animals
  • Estrogen Receptor alpha / metabolism
  • Estrogens / physiology
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Intra-Abdominal Fat / metabolism
  • Intra-Abdominal Fat / pathology
  • Male
  • Obesity / metabolism*
  • Obesity / pathology
  • Organ Specificity
  • Risk Factors
  • Sex Characteristics
  • Subcutaneous Fat / metabolism
  • Subcutaneous Fat / pathology


  • ESR1 protein, human
  • Estrogen Receptor alpha
  • Estrogens