Updated 14th April 2022

How important is your waist circumference for overall health?

Your waist circumference is the distance around your waist, just above your hips. In this article, we’ll look at the best way to accurately measure it. 

Waist circumference can be an important health indicator. Experts believe a higher waist circumference is linked to a greater risk of certain health conditions.

Men with a waist circumference higher than 40 inches (101.6 cm) and non-pregnant women with a waist circumference higher than 35 inches (88.9 cm) have an increased risk of developing long-term conditions including heart disease and type 2 diabetes. 

But waist circumference is just a single measurement, and your doctor won’t use it on its own to determine your health status. It’s best to view it as part of a larger picture and to consider it alongside other factors.

At ZOE, we believe that eating the right foods for you is one of the best ways to look after your overall health.

The ZOE at-home test analyzes the unique ways you respond to foods, which can influence your levels of body fat and your waist circumference.

It also looks at the microorganisms that live in your gut. Some of these bugs are linked to an increased risk of belly fat, and what you eat has an impact on them.

The ZOE program combines all this information to help you choose the best foods for your body.

You can take a free quiz to learn how ZOE can help you with your personal health goals. 

How to measure your waist circumference

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommend the following steps for measuring your waist circumference. All you need is a tape measure. 

  1. Start in a standing position.

  2. Wrap a tape measure around your waist — it should sit right above your hip bone.

  3. Check that the tape is parallel to the floor, forming a horizontal line across your body.

  4. The tape shouldn’t press into your skin, but it should be a snug fit.

  5. Take the measurement after breathing out.

Measuring your waist circumference can give you an indication of how much belly fat you have. But being in good health doesn’t mean you need to get too wrapped up in numbers.

Taking note of how your favorite pair of jeans fits can also indicate whether anything has changed.

How important is waist circumference?

Waist circumference is just one of many factors your doctor will take into account when looking at your overall health. 

However, having too much fat around your belly has been linked to an increased risk of developing long-term health conditions including type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, and heart disease. 

Research suggests that waist circumference may be more useful than some other measurements when it comes to understanding your health.

One study from 2001 directly compared the risk of certain diseases in women during menopause with both their waist circumference and body mass index (BMI). 

The researchers found that waist circumference had closer links than BMI to several risk factors for heart disease and diabetes. 

Your BMI is based on the relationship between your weight and your height, and it doesn’t take into account the distribution of fat. You might have a low or normal BMI, but if the majority of your fat is in the belly area, it could be a problem. 

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On the other hand, your BMI could be high because you carry a lot of muscle — which is heavier than fat — but that doesn’t necessarily mean you have overweight or obesity. 

Although more research is necessary, some studies have also shown that increased central obesity, or abdominal obesity, is linked with an increased risk of heart problems and cancers even in people with a normal BMI

The International Atherosclerosis Society and the International Chair on Cardiometabolic Risk put out a joint statement about waist circumference in 2020. They believe it’s an important enough measurement for medical authorities to use alongside BMI as a key sign of clinical obesity.

While doctors don’t yet routinely treat waist circumference as confirmation of obesity on its own, research suggests it can be helpful to know your waist circumference together with other measurements.

What is a healthy waist circumference?

If you’re a woman with a waist circumference larger than 35 inches or a man with a waist circumference over 40 inches, you may have a higher risk of conditions like high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes, and heart disease.

However, there are other factors to take into consideration when using these waist circumference cutoff values. There are inherent differences in body fat distribution between different genders, ages, and ethnicities.

A 2020 study involving first-year university students of different ethnic backgrounds concluded that race and ethnicity impacted measures of obesity, including waist circumference. For example, researchers found that South Asian students taking part in the study had higher average waist circumferences than East Asian or white students.

Another study, with over 170,000 participants, found that there are gender, age, and ethnicity related differences in body fat distribution. Therefore, the same measurement in two different individuals could carry a different meaning based on each person’s background.  

Unpublished research by ZOE scientists suggests that during menopause women are likely to see an increase in their waist circumference and to develop more fat around their organs. 

While menopause may also lead to unwanted weight gain for some women, this alone doesn’t necessrily mean that you now have obesity or that you are at greater risk of chronic conditions. 

If you do notice that your weight or waist circumference is increasing, consider discussing it with your doctor.

Waist-to-hip ratio

Waist-to-hip ratio (WHR) is another way to measure abdominal obesity. It’s your waist circumference divided by your hip circumference (the distance around your hips). 

A 2019 study involving more than 50,000 people found that WHR could be a good tool to predict the risk of death due to heart problems. Another study found that higher WHR points to poor outcomes if people already have existing heart problems.

Not all researchers support the use of WHR, though, and they instead suggest that it may not be a reliable tool

On their own, neither BMI, nor waist circumference, nor WHR are true reflections of your health. 

If you measure higher than the recommended ranges, you can work with your doctor to assess your personal health and make changes in your diet and exercise routine to help reduce your risk of related health problems. 

Summary

You can measure your waist circumference by wrapping a tape measure around your waist just above your hips, standing up straight, and breathing out. 

A waist circumference larger than 40 inches for men or 35 inches for women could mean that you have an increased risk of heart disease, stroke, or type 2 diabetes.

But other factors like sex and race or ethnicity can impact waist circumference, and having a waist circumference outside these guidelines doesn’t necessarily mean you need to lose weight.

If you feel that losing weight would support your health goals, your doctor will be able to advise you on the best approach to take.

At ZOE, we run the largest nutritional study in the world, with over 15,000 participants so far. Data from this has shown us that everyone responds differently to the food they eat.

That’s why we believe that eating the right foods for you is one of the best ways to look after your overall health.

The ZOE at-home test looks at how your blood sugar and blood fat levels change when you eat different foods, as well as how your unique range of gut bugs affect these responses. 

Based on this information, the ZOE program helps you choose the best foods for your body, which can in turn help reduce responses linked to long-term diseases, as well as your risk of increased belly fat.

Unpublished research by ZOE found that people who stuck closely to their personalized ZOE nutrition program lost an average of 9.4 pounds after 3 months, while over 80% said they had more energy and didn’t feel hungry.

You can take a free quiz to find out more. 

Sources

Abdominal obesity and the risk of all-cause, cardiovascular, and cancer mortality: sixteen years of follow-up in US women. Circulation. (2008). https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/18362231/

Adult BMI calculator. (2022). https://www.cdc.gov/healthyweight/assessing/bmi/adult_bmi/english_bmi_calculator/bmi_calculator.html 

Assessing your weight. (2020). https://www.cdc.gov/healthyweight/assessing/index.html 

Comparing anthropometric indicators of visceral and general adiposity as determinants of overall and cardiovascular mortality. Archives of Iranian Medicine. (2019). https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/31356096/

Normal-weight central obesity: Implications for total and cardiovascular mortality. Annals of Internal Medicine. (2015). https://www.acpjournals.org/doi/10.7326/m14-2525

Racial, ethnic, and gender differences in obesity and body fat distribution: an All of Us Research Program demonstration project. PLoS One. (2021). https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC8345840/ 

The effect of race/ethnicity on obesity traits in first year university students from Canada: The GENEiUS study. PLoS One. (2020). https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/33237969/ 

The waist-hip ratio: a flawed index. Annals in Human Biology. (2020). https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/32892641/ 

Trajectories of waist-to-hip ratio and adverse outcomes in heart failure with mid-range ejection fraction. Obesity Facts. (2020). https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7445556/ 

Waist circumference and waist-hip ratio: Report of a WHO expert consultation. (2008). http://apps.who.int/iris/bitstream/handle/10665/44583/9789241501491_eng.pdf;jsessionid=E8F141934F505D52131D3952230BC6BA?sequence=1

Waist circumference as a vital sign in clinical practice: a Consensus Statement from the IAS and ICCR Working Group on Visceral Obesity. Nature Reviews Endocrinology. (2020). https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7027970/ 

Waist circumference vs body mass index for prediction of disease risk in postmenopausal women. International Journal of Obesity. (2001). https://www.nature.com/articles/0801640