Why your waist size matters

Measuring tape

Measuring your waist can help reduce your risk of heart and circulatory diseases, as Professor Naveed Sattar tells Senior Cardiac Nurse Emily McGrath.

Why does your waist measurement matter?

Waist circumference is a good measure of fat around your middle. This type of fat builds up around your organs, and is linked to high blood fat levels, high blood pressure and diabetes. A larger waist usually also means there is excess fat inside your organs. When this happens in your liver, for example, it pumps out too much fat and sugar into the blood, increasing your risk of coronary heart disease and diabetes.

What should your waist measurement be?

For men, a waist circumference below 94cm (37in) is ‘low risk’, 94–102cm (37-40in) is ‘high risk’ and more than 102cm (40in) is ‘very high’. For women, below 80cm (31.5in) is low risk, 80–88cm (31.5-34.6in) is high risk and more than 88cm (34.6in) is very high. These are the guidelines for people of white European, black African, Middle Eastern and mixed origin.

For men of African Caribbean, South Asian, Chinese and Japanese origin, a waist circumference below 90cm (35.4in) is low risk, and more than that is ‘very high risk’ (there isn’t a ‘high risk’ category). For women from these groups, below 80cm (31.5in) is low risk, and anything above is very high risk.

Why does your ethnic origin make a difference?

African Caribbean, South Asian, Chinese and Japanese people tend to carry more fat and less muscle at the same weight as a white European. And the risk of diabetes and heart and circulatory diseases starts to increase at a lower weight gain than for Europeans.

Is this the best way to understand whether you are overweight?

A tape measure around an appleIt’s good because it’s easy to understand. Doctors are more likely to use body mass index (BMI), a measure of weight relative to your height – use our BMI calculator. Waist measurement is better for people who carry a lot of muscle and less fat, like bodybuilders, boxers and rugby players. If you want to eat more healthily and lose weight, it’s best to measure how much weight you lose or put on. Losing weight will help your waist measurement too. 

How to measure your waist

  1. Find the bottom of your ribs and the top of your hips.
  2. Place a tape measure around your middle at a point halfway between them (just above the belly button).
  3. Make sure it’s pulled tight, but isn’t digging into your skin.
  4. Breathe out naturally and take your measurement.
  5. Take your measurement again, just to be sure.

What research has the BHF done in this area?

I recently published a paper with colleagues at the University of Bristol, showing that excess weight, even in children, can affect the size of the heart and blood pressure. This suggests helping people manage their weight will benefit their hearts. The BHF has funded many other studies, including research identifying which genes influence where fat is distributed around your body. Potentially, this could pave the way for new treatments in future.

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