Waist, Not Weight

Abdominal girth may predict future health

Say goodbye scale and hello tape measure. Recent studies have shown that it’s not how much you weigh, but how you carry your fat proportionally that’s most indicative of future health.

A 10-year European study published in the New England Journal of Medicine in 2008 found that excess weight around the abdomen nearly doubled a person’s risk of death from diseases such as cancer, stroke and heart disease.

Research consistently shows that fat on your belly is more dangerous than fat elsewhere on the body. “An apple-shaped body, which consists of abdominal or upper body fat, increases your risk for health problems such as diabetes, high cholesterol, heart disease and high blood pressure,” says Toby Smithson, National Spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association.

Convinced that it’s time to attack the fat around your middle? I hope so. Here’s some information to help get you started.

Taking Measure

Unlike traditional pound measurements, which don’t account for height variations, the waist-to-hip ratio, calculated by dividing your waist measurement at its smallest point by the circumference of your hips at their widest point, appears to be a more accurate predictor of future health problems. Healthy for women is 0.70. to 0.88; healthy for men is 0.90 to 0.95.

Abdominal girth alone is also a helpful tool. Measured at its widest part, a waist circumference of over 35 inches for women and over 40 for men is considered obese, says Dr. Caroline Apovian, Associate Professor of Medicine at the Boston University School of Medicine and Director of the Nutrition and Weight Management Center at Boston University Medical Center.

A Different Kind of Fat

The problem with belly fat is that it’s visceral, which means it’s a deeper and more dangerous kind of fat than subcutaneous fat that just sits beneath the skin, such as the fat on your butt and thighs.

“Belly fat breaks down into fatty acids, which move into the liver and muscles and start a reaction of increasing the bad cholesterol levels (LDL) and triglycerides,” says Smithson. “Insulin becomes less effective in controlling blood sugars.” This “active” fat releases compounds known to increase inflammation, resulting in damaged artery walls and increased risk of heart disease.

Both women and men struggle with abdominal fat. While men usually have less overall body fat and more muscle than women, they tend to hold their fat in the abdomen area throughout their life, says Apovian. Women tend to see this weight gain, especially in the waist, after menopause.

But growing abdomens are not just an old-age issue. Belly fat is starting to form in youth due to consumption of too much fatty foods combined with inactivity. “More research is showing that the waist size of children and adolescents is increasing in addition to the Body Mass Index, and that both the larger waist and higher BMI continue on to adulthood,” says Smithson. 

How to Battle the Bulge

Whether we’re developing belly fat at a young age or in midlife, the good news is we can fight it off through balanced nutrition and targeted exercise.

“The overall idea is that reducing your intake of sugars and refined carbohydrates, namely foods with high glycemic indexes, seems to reduce abdominal fat stores,” says Sara Ryba, a New York–based registered dietitian and a certified nutritionist. 

That means lighten up on processed foods and stick to fresh vegetables, fruits, nuts, legumes and lean protein. Also, avoid trans fats—now listed on all nutrition labels—since this kind likes to stick around. Low-fat dairy, which contains calcium, also appears to help burn more fat in the belly area. Finally, anti-inflammatory foods like extra virgin olive oil, walnuts and broccoli can help lower the damaging activity of visceral abdominal fat.

Exercise, of course, goes hand in hand with proper nutrition. At least 60 minutes of moderate daily exercise, says Apovian, is your best defense against harmful belly fat. A more rigorous routine is recommended for weight loss.

Kirsten Palmer, an instructor/trainer for The FIRM, a cardio and body-sculpting fitness method, says there are three components to maintaining a healthy amount of fat around your waistline: a) incorporate cardiovascular activity into your fitness routine, b) add weighted exercises to your workout, and c) increase your strength, stamina, balance and posture by toning your core muscles.

 “The truth is we must take a whole-system approach to stubborn belly fat if we want to see real, lasting results,” says Palmer.

 Here are a few exercises to specifically target your abdominal muscles.

 The Full-Body Crunch:

  • Lie on your back with your hands behind your head and your knees above your hips.
  • Lift the head, neck and shoulders without pulling on your head and neck with your hands. Relax the neck and look upward diagonally, leaving space for your fist between your chest and chin.
  • At the same time, use your abdominals to lift your hips up, drawing your knees in closer to your torso.
  • Release and repeat 15 times. Avoid swinging the legs in and out, or arching the low back. Tighten the belly as much as possible each time and exhale forcefully.
  • Do three sets of 15.

The Bicycle:

  • Lie on your back with your hands behind your head and your elbows out to the side.
  • Begin with both knees tucked to the chest and the head, neck and shoulders lifted.
  • Twist your torso to the right side as you extend your left leg out and pull your right knee in. Visualize touching the left elbow to the right.
  • Immediately change sides: twist to the left, pull the left knee in and extend the right leg all in one fluid motion.
  • Repeat by alternating right and left so that you do 15 on each side for a total of 30 twists.
  • Rest and repeat three times.

The Plank:

  • Lie face-down on the floor with your elbows bent and forearms extended, palms flat.
  • Lift up onto the balls of the feet so that all of your body weight is balanced on your feet and forearms.
  • Keep your back and hips flat so that your body makes a straight line from your head to heels.
  • Hold this position for as long as you can. Work up to one-minute intervals.
  • Repeat three times for a set.



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jenboda's picture
User offline. Last seen 7 years 13 weeks ago. Offline
Joined: 12/03/2008

Great article. I am glad to see that it is finally coming to light that not all form of fat is the same, both inside and outside of the body. I didn't know that the form of fat in the belly is more dangerous, though I think it leads to provocative questions on why men have higher rates of heart disease.


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