Measuring your waist size and following it over time is one of the best ways to gauge your health risks. Yet too few people do it. You might be diligent about checking your body weight, but research shows waist size may be a better indicator of chronic disease risk than how much you weigh. In fact, your waist measurement can tell you more about future health risks than BMI (body mass index), a value health care professionals use for assessing whether a person is healthy body size.
You can use an online calculator to calculate your own BMI from your height and weight, but waist size can tell you more about factors that affect your health such as excess visceral fat. That’s why a tape measure is as useful of an instrument as a scale. If you’re not currently measuring and recording your waist size every month, you’re missing out on an opportunity to monitor your health at home.
Why Waist Size Is More Important than BMI (Body Mass Index)
Your body weight says little about your body composition. If you gain weight, you could have added more body fat to your frame or more muscle. The latter is beneficial while the former is not. Even if you know you gained body fat, you don’t know whether it’s a harmful type of body fat (visceral fat) or a more benign kind of subcutaneous fat. (Fat underneath the skin).
Visceral fat is different from subcutaneous fat, the type of superficial fat you can squeeze between your fingers. You can’t see subcutaneous fat, but you can feel it and pinch it. Visceral fat lies deep in your pelvis — between your organs and around your abdominal cavity — so it’s not easy to spot without an X-ray or other imaging test. Yet it’s associated with a higher risk of a host of health problems including type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, metabolic syndrome, and some types of cancer. Visceral fat is also linked to higher levels of inflammation in the body and insulin resistance, a precursor to diabetes.
Without doing an imaging study, the best indicator of how much visceral fat you have is the size of your waistline. That’s why keeping a running measure of it is so important.
Waist Size is a Measure of Abdominal Obesity
While the term “obesity” can be applied to anyone with a high body mass index (BMI), abdominal obesity is defined as a waist circumference greater than 40 inches for men or 35 inches for women.
Abdominal obesity is usually defined as having an excess of visceral fat — or belly fat — around your organs, which is often referred to as apple-shaped obesity.
Visceral fat is especially dangerous because it releases hormones that affect blood glucose levels and other metabolic processes that can lead to diabetes, heart disease, and stroke. Abdominal obesity also increases your risk for high blood pressure, high cholesterol levels, and fatty liver disease.
If you want to reduce your chances of developing heart disease or diabetes—or some cancers—monitor your waist size regularly. Also, keep a record of it to show your doctor. Unfortunately, not all healthcare providers measure waist size.
As a study shows:
“Waist circumference is a significant predictor of general health, and a more accurate method than BMI. This is a simpler method for providing early warning signs of cardiometabolic diseases.” (J Public Health Res. 2020 Jul 2;9(2):1811)
How to Measure Your Waist Size
You can check your waist size by measuring the circumference of your waist at the navel. Don’t use an old tape measure since tape measures stretch over time and the stretch will make your waist size smaller than it actually is.
Ready to start? Wrap the tape measure around your bare stomach, just above your hip bones. If you don’t have a tape measure, use string, or ribbon and mark it with a pen for future use. Don’t suck in or stick out your stomach for the measurement; keep breathing normally as you take the measurement.
When you find the right spot, make sure that the tape measure is neither too tight nor too loose. Take several measurements over a few days to see if they are consistent. Write down the values in a journal or on a calendar.
A healthy waist measurement is less than 35 inches (89 centimeters) in men and less than 40 inches (102 centimeters) in women.
Your Waist Size is Another “Vital Sign”
You might already monitor your blood pressure, lipids, and body weight but add waist size to the list of health markers to track. It’s too important not to.
Now you know that if your waist measurement is greater than 40 inches for men or 35 inches for women, you’re at increased risk of developing heart disease or type 2 diabetes.
Measuring your waist size is just as important, if not more so, than following your body weight. It can help you keep track of your health, and it can even help you predict whether you are at risk for certain diseases. If you want to make sure that everything is in order, look at these tips before making any drastic changes to your lifestyle!
The Bottom Line
Now you know why monitoring your waist size is so important for preserving your health and lowering your risk of health problems. If it’s too large, look closely at your diet and lifestyle, including factors like sleep, stress management, and physical activity. Are you leading a healthy lifestyle or making too many trips to fast food restaurants and sitting too much?
Begin making small changes like increasing how physically active you are. Cut back or eliminate sugar and ultra-processed foods. Make sure you have a way to manage stress and that you’re getting at least seven hours of sleep per night. Also, monitor your blood sugar level and blood pressure as increased visceral fat is a sign of insulin resistance.
Elevated blood pressure and blood sugar are hallmarks of insulin resistance. Focus on moving more throughout the day and break up periods of sitting. Make sure you’re strength training and doing some form of aerobic exercise to maximize fat loss. If you’re consistent, you should see changes over time.
“Waist Size Matters | Obesity Prevention Source | Harvard T.H. Chan ….” https://www.hsph.harvard.edu/obesity-prevention-source/obesity-definition/abdominal-obesity/.
Darsini D, Hamidah H, Notobroto HB, Cahyono EA. Health risks associated with high waist circumference: A systematic review. J Public Health Res. 2020 Jul 2;9(2):1811. doi: 10.4081/jphr.2020.1811. PMID: 32728557; PMCID: PMC7376462.
“THE DANGERS OF VISCERAL FAT – Endocrine News.” https://endocrinenews.endocrine.org/the-dangers-of-visceral-fat/.