It seems that many Americans are in denial about their health. With two-thirds of our country classified as over-weight or obese and people looking to lay blame on everything or everyone but themselves, I find it alarming when people are surprised, no SHOCKED, when I tell them they are in the over-weight or obese.To classify people as over-weight or obese, we often measure their height and weight and plug it into an equation to find their Body Mass Index or BMI. It is a ratio of height to weight without taking into account gender or body fat percentage. Because of this, many health professionals look at risk factors for disease in other measures.
Measuring someone’s body fat percentage is the better way to assess their health status, but they are not always available in the privacy of your own home. For more on this, see more about measuring body composition/body fat in my earlier blog post “What Determines a Healthy Weight?”
Another way of measuring disease risk/health status is waist circumference. Gone is the measure of waist-to-hip ratio from the 90’s; measuring the waist circumference is the standard now.
Why measure waist circumference?
Excess abdominal/belly fat increases the risk of high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes, high cholesterol and triglycerides, and heart disease – all preventable diseases. When taking into account a BMI between 25 and 35 the waist circumference can help find the risk for these diseases. For example someone with a BMI of 29 but a waist circumference below the cutoff is at less risk than someone with a BMI of 27 and a waist circumference above the cutoff. Someone with a BMI over 35 will very likely be above the cutoff points for waist circumference.
How to measure waist circumference?
Get a tape measure and wrap it around your waist making sure it is parallel to the floor and that the tape measure is not twisted. Do not measure over your clothing, no matter how thin the material. The “right” place to measure is at the top of the hip bone known as the iliac crest. Some people have trouble finding this spot. If you can’t locate the top of your hip bone, then measure the waist at the smallest part making sure you are measuring the waist on not the hips. If there isn’t a smallest part of the waist, you can use the “landmark” of your belly button. You want to make sure the tape measure is on the same parallel to the floor all the way around the body/waist; not lower in the front and higher in the back. Also don’t hold your breath.
One of the biggest mistakes made when measuring waist circumference is measuring underneath the belly. For example, men with larger belly tend to measure where their waistband sits. This isn’t the right place. Men often disagree with my measurement results when I tell them they have a waist circumference of say 42”, when they wear size 36” pants. Not the same…
Now what does that number mean?
What is the result – without pulling too tight on the tape measure? For women >35” (88 cm) and for men >40” (102 cm) is “at risk.” This measure it the same no matter how tall you are. If you are close to or right at these measures, you need to make sure you don’t gain more weight/fat. If you are at risk, you need to work on losing weight now to help you lose body fat.
It is not possible to cut body fat in one specific part of the body without surgical intervention. However, adding strength/resistance training, cardiovascular exercise, and right calories can help reduce overall body fat, and decreasing belly fat in the process.
After working on your eating and exercise habits measure again in six to eight weeks. Make sure you are heading in the right direction.