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Sexual dimorphism of body composition.

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Pediatric Nutrition Childhood Nutrition Research Centre, Institute of Child Health, 30 Guilford Street, London WC1N 1EH, UK.


Sexual dimorphism in human body composition is evident from fetal life, but emerges primarily during puberty. At birth, males have a similar fat mass to females but are longer and have greater lean mass. Such differences remain detectable during childhood; however, females enter puberty earlier and undergo a more rapid pubertal transition, whereas boys have a substantially longer growth period. After adjusting for dimorphism in size (height), adult males have greater total lean mass and mineral mass, and a lower fat mass than females. These whole-body differences are complemented by major differences in tissue distribution. Adult males have greater arm muscle mass, larger and stronger bones, and reduced limb fat, but a similar degree of central abdominal fat. Females have a more peripheral distribution of fat in early adulthood; however, greater parity and the menopause both induce a more android fat distribution with increasing age. Sex differences in body composition are primarily attributable to the action of sex steroid hormones, which drive the dimorphisms during pubertal development. Oestrogen is important not only in body fat distribution but also in the female pattern of bone development that predisposes to a greater female risk of osteoporosis in old age. Disorders of sex development are associated with significant abnormalities of body composition, attributable largely to their impact on mechanisms of hormonal regulation.

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