While it’s natural for your waistline to thicken a little once you reach a certain age, it’s important not to simply give in to the inevitable, health experts are warning. There are good reasons why the experts are taking an interest in the state of our waistlines. Research shows that having too much fat around your middle – and therefore a larger waist measurement – can have serious consequences for your health, including a higher risk of type 2 diabetes, heart disease and even some forms of cancer.I
It’s not the tummy fat that you can pinch between your fingers that is the problem
It’s not the tummy fat that you can pinch between your fingers that is the problem (although too much of that isn’t ideal either!). It’s the fat that develops inside the abdomen around our internal organs, known as abdominal visceral fat that is the dangerous stuff. Unlike the fat you store under your skin, which is relatively dormant, abdominal visceral fat is very active in your body – and not in a good way.
“Abdominal visceral fat releases inflammatory substances that are harmful to your blood vessels, liver, heart and other organs,” says Professor Jean-Pierre Després, Scientific Director of the International Chair on Cardiometabolic Risk. It is these harmful effects that help increase the risk of type 2 diabetes and heart disease. New research from the US has also linked abdominal obesity with a higher risk of some forms of cancer, including breast cancer.
Women are more likely to start accumulating ‘bad’ abdominal fat in the years leading up to the menopause because of falling levels of the hormone oestrogen. “The kind of fat younger women have on their hips is ‘good’ fat. It actually protects you against heart disease,” explains Professor Després. “Oestrogen promotes good fat and protects you against the accumulation of abdominal visceral fat. But as oestrogen levels drop, your body loses its ability to store fat on your hips. The fat has to be stored somewhere so it’s stored in the abdomen and your body shape changes.”
But there are other things that can lead to abdominal obesity – after all, both men and younger women can have high levels of harmful visceral fat too. One major contributing factor is how little we move. “We are more sedentary than ever before,” says dietitian Linda Main. “We are just not motivated to be physically active. We tend to spend most of the sitting down, use our cars to get about and spend our evenings in front of the TV or computer.”
We also eat too many of the wrong sorts of food. “These days we are surrounded by a huge variety of over-processed foods,” says Linda. “It’s very easy over time to eat a little bit more than your body burns up. Often it takes years to accumulate, and that’s partly why we recommend losing it slowly too.” A high intake of sugary and fizzy drinks also contributes to excess calorie intake and therefore abdominal obesity.
One big problem with the build up of dangerous abdominal fat is that you can’t necessarily tell it’s happening simply by weighing yourself or working out your body mass index (BMI). “We followed a group of women over seven years and, in those that didn’t gain weight, there was a 30-per-cent increase in abdominal visceral fat, which was only predicted by a change in their waistline,” says Professor Després. “That’s why regularly measuring your waistline is so important.”
Measure your waist regularly yourself at home
Measuring our waists is something that any of us can do routinely at home. “It’s a simple thing we can all do and keep track of – measure your partner too!” says Linda. “The knack is knowing exactly where to do it, and that’s midway between the top of your hip bone and your bottom rib. It may help to look in mirror, and bear in mind that it might not be where you usually measure your waist.”
And if you discover your waistline is in the danger zone? The good news is that it is perfectly possible to reclaim your waist and, at the same time, protect your health. “We often use ageing as en excuse,” says Professor Després. “In fact, your lifestyle can have a substantial impact. If you eat well and you are physically active, it can protect you against abdominal visceral fat to a very significant extent.”
Abdominal visceral fat is actually very sensitive to physical activity, points out Linda Main. “Often you’ll find that your weight doesn’t go down when you start exercising, but your waist circumference does,” says Linda. “Measuring your waist allows you to check your progress in a way that weighing yourself or checking your BMI doesn’t. Whether or not your weight goes down, regular physical activity is going to help lower your cardiovascular risk and there are also psychological benefits too.”
“We advise people to find something that either fits with their lifestyle, such as walking instead of taking the car, or something they really love doing,” says Linda. “But we’re not talking about the short term. You need to make lifetime changes to reduce the risks linked to abdominal obesity and improve your long-term health.”
The other important tool for tackling abdominal obesity is healthy eating. One helpful approach, says Professor Després, is simply to eat more of the right foods and fewer of the unhealthy ones.
“My university prescribed the Mediterranean diet (a diet that’s rich in fruit, vegetables, pulses, olive oil and fish) to a group of volunteers and people found it difficult to empty their plates,” he says. “They were eating big platefuls but a reduced number of calories. When you eat fast food it’s a small volume of food with lots of calories.”
Linda agrees that swapping high-calorie foods for healthier options is a helpful strategy. “Aim to eat more fruit and vegetables, wholegrains, pulses and low-fat dairy,” she says. Keeping sugary drinks to a minimum will help too. Try our Mediterranean Diet at www.yoursdietclub.co.uk.
“It’s about taking stock of your lifestyle and reviewing it,” says Linda. “Small changes such as displacing unhealthy snacks with healthy ones and moving a bit more really can make a difference, provided you keep it up.”
How to measure your waist
Measuring your waist is simple, but it’s important to remember that you aren’t measuring yourself for a new pair of trousers or skirt – you may need to measure a slightly different area of your waist than you are used to. Here’s how it’s done:
* Find the top of your hipbone and the bottom of your ribs.
* Place your tape measure midway between these points and wrap it around your waist.
* Breathe out naturally.
* Check your measurement.
Are you at risk?
You have a higher risk of health problems if your waist size is:
* more than 80cm/32in if you're a woman
* more than 94cm/37in if you're a man
* more than 90cm (36in) if you are an Asian man
You are at serious health risk if your waist size is:
* more than 102cm (40in), if you're a man * more than 88cm (34.5in), if you're a woman
“I didn’t really have a waist”
Gloria Hooper started to gain weight in 2007 following treatment for breast cancer. “After two and a half years of treatment I didn’t want to do anything,” says Gloria, 52, from Chelmsford. “The fatter I got the more sedentary I was, and I was always treating myself to cakes, crisps and chocolate.”
At her biggest Gloria was a size 26 and her waist measured 114cm (45in). “I didn’t really have a waist,” she says. “I just came out at the bust and kept going! In the end I realised I’d been given a second chance at life and I was just wasting it.” Gloria signed up with her local Virgin Active gym and a weight loss club. “I was doing three aqua-aerobics classes a week and started to lose weight. Next I moved on to Zumba and body conditioning. I started cooking everything from scratch too, and instead of cakes I would have a piece of fruit. I also had to learn about portion size.”
With regular exercise and healthy eating, Gloria’s shape began to change. “Before I’d have to buy clothes to fit my waist, but they’d be big everywhere else. Now I actually go in at the waist and I can wear slim leg jeans and fitted tops.” Gloria is now a size 12-14 and her waist measures a healthy 80cm (31.5in). “I feel like I’ve got my life back,” she says.